These days we could all use more reasons to be optimistic.
Enter Arizona football.
As long as you are done laughing and your eyes have rolled back into place, allow me to explain. This article will in no way involve me trying to tell you how the Wildcats will surprise everyone and content for the Pac-12 South title, nor am I going to even mention the Rose Bowl (aside from this moment right here).
No, when I say there are reasons to be optimistic about Arizona football, I do so with the caveat that even the best scenarios likely lead to an otherwise mediocre campaign.
But after winning 5 games in 2018 and then just 4 in 2019, I’m guessing most of us would take mediocre — especially if it included a win over Arizona State.
So with all that, here are 5 reasons to be optimistic about Arizona football in 2020.
Grant Gunnell is legit
The towering Gunnell came to Arizona as one of the more highly-regarded players the program has had at the QB position, and nothing he did as a freshman should give doubt to how good he could become. He saw most of his action in relief but make a couple of starts, and overall completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception — which came when he was hit by a USC defender while he threw the ball.
It’s not a stretch to say the sophomore is a better fit for Noel Mazzone’s offense than Khalil Tate, and with some growth Gunnell is likely to find himself at least in the top half of Pac-12 passers.
The folks over at ProFootballFocus already named Gunnell Arizona’s best returning player, and while he’s not officially locked in as the starting QB, without injury there’s zero chance he won’t be taking the first snap of the season. And Arizona should feel plenty good about the ball being in his hands.
The Wildcats are loaded at running back
Could Arizona lose a player of J.J. Taylor’s caliber and actually improve at the running back position? In no slight to Taylor, probably. Starting with Gary Brightwell but continuing on with Bam Smith, Nathan Tilford, Michael Wiley, Frank Brown and Jalen John, the Wildcats boast one of the deepest and most versatile running back rooms in the country.
It starts with the senior Brightwell, though, as he will finally get his chance to be the No. 1 back.
The guess here is he’ll take full advantage of it and play his well into being an NFL Draft pick. He has good size and excellent speed, and over the last two seasons has shown to be the kind of player who can make game-changing plays with the ball in his hands. With Arizona’s depth at the position and a passing game led by Gunnell he will not have to be a workhorse, but be confident he will step up when called upon.
There’s intriguing talent and options at wide receiver
Arizona’s leading receiver last season, in terms of yards, was a converted quarterback learning the position. In catching 34 passes for 552 yards and five touchdowns Jamarye Joiner showed enough to make you think he could actually, legitimately become a pass-catching threat.
He’ll be joined by speedster Tayvian Cunningham, who caught 35 passes for 383 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as well as Stanley Berryhill III, Drew Dixon, Brian Casteel and a host of intriguing youngsters such as Boobie Curry, Jalen Johnson, Dyelan Miller, Majon Wright and Tre Adams.
Not all of them will put up huge numbers, of course, and to be fair none of Arizona’s wideouts are proven go-to guys. But this group has members who bring NFL size, NFL speed and NFL potential. With a quarterback who is adept at getting his playmakers the ball, expect to see some fireworks out of the passing game.
Yes, coaching matters (and it’s improved!)
Arizona’s defense was bad last season. It wasn’t much better the year before that or even the year before that one. In fact, the last time Arizona really put up any kind of a fight on defense was in 2014, when coincidentally the team won 10 games, claimed the Pac-12 South title and played in the Fiesta Bowl. This season will see an entirely new coaching staff on that side of the ball, led by coordinator Paul Rhoads, and the feeling here is the defense will take a step forward.
It would be tough to get even worse, sure. But even last season that side of the ball showed some flashes. Remember how they held Texas Tech to just 14 points? How about the first halves against Washington and USC, before the dam ultimately burst? Shoot, even ASU mustered just 24 points, with the Wildcats actually outgaining the Sun Devils in the season-finishing loss.
The point is if not for offensive struggles, Arizona’s defense might have looked a smidge better last season. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields are quality linebackers, Jalen Harris is loaded with potential and the team actually has some good depth at cornerback. There is some experienced talent along the defensive line, too. Don’t ask about safety (hey, this is an optimism piece).
Now with new (and better) coaches, along with transfers Aaron Blackwell and (probably) Brendan Schooler, don’t be surprised if that side of the ball takes a step closer to average. And with a really good offense, a close-to-average defense will look that much better.
Time will be kind to the Cats
There’s a decent chance that if Arizona had the money, Kevin Sumlin would no longer be the head coach. As it stands, we all know he is coaching for his job next season and a slow start could very well lead to his dismissal. The theme at the end of last season was to “trust the process,” which does nothing to make one feel better but also kind of explains the path to success.
Remember Rich Rodriguez? He had an impressive level of success in Tucson, but he did so by recruiting OKGs. The problem was, the kinda guys Rodriguez brought in were often undersized and not exactly the type of player who would play at the next level.
Sumlin has benefited from being in places easier to recruit to than Arizona, yes, but the type of player his teams are built on is different from what Rodriguez looked for. Just look at the recruiting classes, while they don’t feature big names they do offer size and, at the skill positions, speed.
Being big enough to play in the NFL does not a professional make, but being a Sumlin recruit makes them more likely to fit in his system. Whereas once the coaching staff was turning to players not recruited or built for this, now more of the roster is made up of guys brought in by the very staff that is coaching them, filling the roles they had in mind when they were recruited.
So there you go. Will the Wildcats be great in 2020? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if they are at least better than they were last season. With a little luck they should get back to bowl eligibility and perhaps bring some excitement back to the Old Pueblo.
Speaking of excitement, who do I talk to about making the Desert Swarm uniforms permanent?