The Arizona Wildcats held their first of 15 spring practices on Monday, spending about 90 minutes inside the Davis Sports Center in helmets with no pads. Only a handful of players in action were new to the program, but the practice jerseys might as well have had names on them in order to help out the slew of first-year coaches identify who they were working with.
“A lot new faces,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said, referring just as much to the four new assistants as to the newcomers that were in uniform. “A lot of moving parts, but a lot of energy.”
Spring practice began with Arizona down an assistant, after it was reported earlier Monday that defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin was taking a job at Colorado. Sumlin said he learned of the departure over the weekend and immediately got to work on finding a replacement, noting that “I will probably have something done by the end of the week.”
In the meantime, new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads will tap into his experience as a secondary coach, most recently with UCLA in 2018-19, to help with the defensive backs while also getting assistance from analysts Chuck Cecil and Pierre Cormier.
“We’re fine with where we are,” Sumlin said. “Paul is installing a defense right now, which he’s going to have to install with the whole defense anyway. His familiarity with actually being a secondary guy gives us some flexibility this week, we don’t have to rush things.”
Arizona will practice three more times this week, getting into full pads on Thursday and then having its first scrimmage on Friday night before going on Spring Break. The Wildcats return to action March 17 and will have their Spring Game at Arizona Stadium on April 4.
About that defense
Rhoads is installing a 3-4 front, which means some of the guys who played defensive end last year could move back a level. Sumlin said redshirt junior Jalen Harris, who was the Wildcats’ leading sack man in 2019 with four, would be at outside linebacker opposite senior Anthony Pandy, pushing seniors Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler inside.
“That’s where our talent is,” Sumlin said of the linebackers. “Those four on the field give us speed, give us size, give us experience. In that 3-4 scheme there’s probably one less of that (big) body type on the field, that gives Harris a chance to really be a drop guy, a rush guy off the edge.”
Sumlin said the specifics of that new scheme won’t be finalized for some time, as for now it’s a matter of dealing with the fundamentals that Rhoads preached about when hired in December.
“We’ve had that discussion of getting our best guys on the field, stopping the run, tackling is a premium, and not giving up a bunch of big plays like we did,” Sumlin said. “We’re on the same page right now, but that’s easier said than done. Everybody wants that, tackle well and don’t let the ball over your head, that’s a good place to start.
“We’ve known each other for a long time. Competed against each other as assistant coaches, as coordinators, as head coaches. I have a really good feel for how he does things.”
The quarterback situation
The unofficial order of passers, based on how they took snaps during the open period of practice Monday, is sophomore Grant Gunnell followed by redshirt junior Rhett Rodriguez, redshirt sophomore Kevin Doyle and true freshman Will Plummer. No surprise there.
Sumlin called Gunnell the “leader in the clubhouse right now” but also noted that’s almost by default.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks, only two that played in a game,” Sumlin said. “And we have one that actually won a game. I think you saw the order of things right now, but we’re competing. We got all the quarterbacks here because Will Plummer is here now. He graduated early, he’s in the mix. But it’s competition across the board.”
Out of action
Among those not participating in the first practice were graduate transfer defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell, redshirt junior offensive lineman Edgar Burrola and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jamarye Joiner. Blackwell is sitting out the spring to heal a knee injury suffered with New Mexico in September, while Burrola is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Joiner, who was a breakout start in 2019 after moving from quarterback, had a boot on his left foot.
“We’ll see what happens,” Sumlin said when asked about Joiner’s status, saying only that he had a foot injury, though word around camp was that it’s a Jones fracture.
Also absent for were graduate transfer wide receiver Brenden Schooler (class) and sophomore cornerback Bobby Wolfe (undisclosed).
More to come?
Arizona has only 63 scholarship players on its spring roster, including the injured ones, with senior defensive back Samari Springs and redshirt senior offensive lineman Bryson Cain not listed. The Wildcats have 15 more signees scheduled to arrive in the summer, but that still puts them well below the 85-scholarship limit, making it very possible they’ll add more guys before preseason camp begins in late July.
“There’s a possibility,” Sumlin said. “We’re like everybody else, we’re in the market because of the (transfer) portal. Roster management becomes a whole different ball of wax. We have room for a couple guys and we’re exploring that market.”
Help wanted at safety
If the Wildcats so add anybody via the transfer market the greatest position of need is safety. Since the 2019 season ended they saw three safeties—Xavier Bell, Day Day Coleman and Troy Young—leave the program, and combined with the unexplained absence of Springs and Arizona only has five scholarship safeties right now.
“You never feel like you have enough of anything,” Sumlin said. “There’s always room for more. And we’ve got some body types at corner that could play safety, some bigger guys.”
- Brenden Schooler began his career at Oregon as a defensive back before moving to wide receiver, and for the time being that’s where he’s going to be with Arizona. “He’s got to figure out what route to run, we don’t have time to get him over there (on defense),” Sumlin said. “But I won’t count that out.”
- Redshirt senior cornerback Lorenzo Burns, who participated in Senior Night activities last November against Utah but opted to return for his fifth season, is looking to add seven or eight pounds of muscle to his 5’11, 170-pound frame to help him stay healthy. “He’s a good cover guy, he’s got good instincts, got good hands,” Sumlin said. “But he’s learned he’s got to sustain this thing, (he) might need to get bigger.”
Full interviews with Grant Gunnell and Kevin Sumlin:
Here’s Grant Gunnell’s first interview as an Arizona WildcatPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, March 2, 2020
Hear what Kevin Sumlin had to say after Arizona Football’s first spring practicePosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, March 2, 2020