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Arizona generating some surprising buzz on recruiting trail

kevin-sumlin-postgame-arizona-wildcats-spring-game-2019-recap Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Do you hear it too?

That sound, albeit faint, is certainly there. I’ve heard it before, and after some time I finally figured out what it was.

That sound we’re hearing? It’s buzz, which in this case is surrounding the Arizona Football program.

Yes, not only did you read that right but I meant to type it.

Coming off a four-win season that saw Arizona lose its final seven games, the morale had to be pretty low. It was reported that the main reason why Kevin Sumlin was not fired was the school couldn’t afford to pay for the move, which is its own kind of sad. Whether that’s true or not, regardless of why he remained the coach few seemed to feel like he was the right guy for the job.

Why should they have? Even the most devoted of Sumlin supporters knew it wasn’t going to be easy. He was tasked with replacing most of the defensive coaching staff, while the 2020 recruiting class — which ultimately finished ranked last in the Pac-12 — did little to inspire.

Adding to the misery was that as recently as early May Arizona was the only Power 5 program in the country to not have a single commitment for the 2021 recruiting class.

Times sure have changed.

On May 5 linebacker Kolbe Cage committed to the Wildcats, and since then he’s been joined by eight other players, most recently quarterback Clay Millen and linebacker Matthew Weerts. They’re in the running for more.

It’s early, but Arizona’s 2021 class currently ranks sixth in the conference. While they will undoubtedly drop as more players choose their schools and being middle of the Pac is nothing to write home about, given recent history mediocrity could be cause for celebration.

The commitment of Millen, in particular, is intriguing. Either a high 3-star or low 4-star prospect, he also held offers from Oregon, Colorado, Indiana and Oregon State. Ranked as the 19th-best pro-style passer in his class, the Washington prospect certainly has the look of a future starter.

He, like the other seven commits, could have looked at Arizona and decided there were better options.

Schools with coaches who are not in danger of being fired during the 2020 season. Programs that have had better success producing NFL draft picks. Schools that really, truly support the football team.

Why Arizona?

On my Wildcat Radio podcast, Gabe Encinas said the class (pre-Millen and Weerts) was undervalued by the rankings and could be one of the better classes the Cats have pulled in recent years.

An optimistic take? Sure, but let’s go with the idea that the players that have committed to Arizona are better than their ranking.

Given circumstances surrounding both football and recruiting right now it is not unreasonable to believe some very good players, minus the camps and other events, could be flying under the radar.

That should not just benefit the Wildcats, though, as it is the same situation for every school in the country. That begs the question: Why Arizona?

Gabe told us some of the players have made it clear they are committing to the school perhaps more than the coaching staff, which makes sense. There’s more to it.

“The low exposure on these guys and their offer lists, Arizona just jumped out to them,” he said. “And when you’re the first Power 5 offer for a guy and you believe in them, they really buy into that.”

It probably also doesn’t hurt that Arizona can offer the potential of early playing time, especially for defensive commits, given how much that side of the ball stands to lose after this upcoming season.

Maybe Gabe is higher on this class than most, even if there is plenty of evidence indicating talent can be found within it. The challenge now will be not just adding more players, but keeping anyone from flipping to another program before signing day.

Unfortunately some likely will — that’s just how recruiting works — but the point is that as of now, in late June, players are choosing Arizona.

Which takes us back to that buzz.

The recent recruiting success has provided a jolt of sorts. Somehow, during this time of Covid-19 the coaching staff has done a great job selling not just the program, but themselves. Their ability to land commitments shows players have confidence in the coaches.

Maybe we should too?

In a virtual chat that can be found on YouTube, Sumlin noted recruiting is different without getting guys on campus (which is the very thing Rich Rodriguez used to claim was the key). But, he said, they’ve done a good job providing virtual tours and such.

“It’s tough for those guys and their families to not get on campus, to not have that kind of personal relationship to walk a guy around and see it,” he said. “Fortunately we’ve spent a lot of time with the virtual piece and it’s working.

“It’s just communication; it’s kind of the new normal.”

The true measure of Sumlin and staff’s newfound recruiting will not be known for at least two seasons, and even then there is plenty of time for class-changing things to happen.

Should Arizona get off to a good start in this next season, the class could get a boost as it would appear the coach has the program heading in the right direction. Should the Wildcats falter out of the gate, Sumlin could lose his job and the current commits may look elsewhere.

But for now, less than two months since the Wildcats were the laughingstock of the college football world, Sumlin and his staff have experienced some success and the program seems to have found its footing.

And, hopefully some players who will help the program make some noise in the near future.