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Taking Stock 2020: How Arizona football is looking under coach Kevin Sumlin

arizona-wildcats-football-stock-report-evaluation-program-2020-kevin-sumlin-rich-rodriguez-pac-12 Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

We haven’t had college sports for more than three months now due to the coronavirus pandemic, making this the longest offseason ever. Literally, not just figuratively.

But with student-athletes returning to campuses across the country, it looks like our long national nightmare might be over sometime soon.

So now is as good a time as ever to take a look at each of the Arizona Wildcats’ 19 different men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future.

To help prepare you for the 2020-21 seasons of Arizona’s 19 different men’s and women’s programs

Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.

NOTE: The information in the ‘before’ section has been repurposed from last year’s series to provide continuity.

First up: Kevin Sumlin’s football team

How it looked before

Sumlin came on board in January 2018, a hire that came shortly after Rich Rodriguez was forced out after six seasons despite a 43-35 record and five bowl games (as well as a Pac-12 South Division title). Allegations of workplace sexual harassment against RichRod—which haven’t been substantiated—no doubt contributed to the move, but the school cited only on-field performance for their decision to make a change.

Sumlin had been fired a few months earlier by Texas A&M despite going 51-26 in six seasons, collecting a nice $10.4 million buyout in the process. Arizona was able to offer him a soft place to land where he signed a five-year, $14.5 million contract with the Wildcats, earning $2 million each for his first two seasons, while in 2020 that pay jumps to $3.5 million (not including any reductions prompted by COVID-19 budget cuts).

Where things stand now

Two years into the Sumlin era, it’s fair to say this hasn’t been a good hire. Arizona won five games in 2018 and just four last season, dropping its final seven games after a 4-1 start to mark the first time the program has had consecutive bowl-less seasons since the mid-2000s.

The first year could easily be blamed on transitioning to a completely different coaching staff and philosophy, but 2019 can’t be written off that easily. More of Sumlin’s own players got involved, and while those guys showed plenty of promise the second season was still a major step back.

Khalil Tate’s fall from grace continued, although that did allow Grant Gunnell to get a jump start on what should be a tremendous career, while the defense imploded to the point that Sumlin fired his defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and defensive line coach during that season-ending seven-game skid.

Year 3 is no doubt a make-or-break one for Sumlin and his staff, including an overhauled defensive group that includes new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. RichRod leftovers figure to make up the minority of key contributors, so that will no longer be an excuse to lean on, though the pandemic may unintentionally provide Sumlin et. al with additional leeway, since the athletic department faces a major budget shortfall and the last thing it could probably afford to do is buy out a football coach while hiring another.

Whether 2020 is the last season that Sumlin coaches Arizona remains to be seen, but if substantial improvement isn’t seen this fall the program could be locked into a downward spiral it may never come out of.

One big question

Can the Wildcats develop talent? Arizona’s 2020 recruiting class is the worst in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports, while Sumlin’s first full class in 2019 was 11th out of 12 in the league. Only five programs from the power conferences had a lower-ranked 2020 class, and the Wildcats’ group was behind one non-P5 team (Cincinnati).

The still-gestating 2021 class sits sixth in the Pac-12 and 65th overall, yet of the 11 players Arizona has commitments from only two are currently ranked among the top 1,000 prospects in the country. For several, the Wildcats are the only P5 school to have offered them to this point.

Recruiting rankings are subjective and by no means predictive of success, but they do serve as a baseline for talent evaluation, and as a whole Arizona is lacking. And with no indication the Wildcats will suddenly be in the running for 4- and 5-star prospects, this means Sumlin and his staff must develop their lesser-regarded recruits and maximize their potential.