The 2020 season was supposed to be a pivotal one for the Arizona Wildcats, one where some notable among of progress needed to be made in order to feel like the Kevin Sumlin era was going to work.
Now that season won’t happen until 2021, either in the spring or not until this time next year, after the Pac-12 canceled all athletic competition for the remainder of the calendar year on Tuesday.
This decision affects all of Arizona’s falls and winter sports, and likely will have an impact on the spring ones as well depending on when things are able to resume. For now, though, let’s focus on what this means for the football program:
Kevin Sumlin’s job is safer
With a 9-15 overall record, including just 6-12 in Pac-12 play, the first two years of Sumlin’s tenure have not gone well. Year No. 3 was potentially a make-or-break one for the head coach, who was understandably on numerous “hot seat” lists entering the 2020 campaign.
Yet all of the chaos related to the coronavirus pandemic has completely altered the way major college programs handle coaching changes. Just look at men’s basketball, where only one power conference school (Wake Forest) made a move this offseason while several other coaches who were at risk of being fired have been retained.
Expect the same in football, even more so than basketball due to the amount of revenue athletic departments will have lost. It’s going to be hard enough for Arizona to pay the coaches it employs in the near future, shelling out money in order for someone to not coach will be even more difficult.
Lots of roster management ahead
When the NCAA canceled all spring sports back in March, early on in the pandemic, it eventually granted all affected student-athletes an extra year of eligibility. It remains to be seen if the NCAA will do the same for fall sports athletes, particularly if a spring season is held for football.
If that extra year is granted, though, which players who were going to be in their final year of eligibility in 2020 will stick around for 2021?
Arizona’s roster includes 19 scholarship seniors, several of which were already in their fifth year of football. That includes the three graduate transfers the Wildcats added during the offseason, most notably former Oregon wide receiver Brenden Schooler, older brother of UA senior linebacker Colin Schooler.
As for non-seniors, while other Pac-12 schools like Oregon and USC could see top-tier players opt out of a spring season, choosing instead to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft—whenever that is—Arizona isn’t likely to see such an exodus. They could, however, see some try to transfer to schools in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC since those conferences still plan to play this fall.
The NCAA allows 85 scholarships for football at the FBS level, and Arizona currently has 81 (80 if you assume suspended offensive lineman Edgar Burrola’s time with the program is over, which seems likely considering the circumstances that led to his suspension). The Wildcats have commitments from 21 high school and junior college prospects so far in the 2021 recruiting class, and if any of them graduate early they could become eligible to play during the spring.
There’s going to be a lot of math that needs to be done.
Keeping everyone invested
Before we can really think about the future roster, though, all attention must be paid on those who are currently here. There aren’t going to be any games this year, but that doesn’t mean the football players will suddenly get released into the wild, so to speak, to fend for themselves.
The Pac-12 will allow schools to decide whether to continue to do non-competition activity, such as practices and weight training. If Arizona chooses to do that it will be one way to ensure the players are being attended to, but that can’t be the extent of it. The mental health aspects of not being able to play the sport they’ve dedicated much of their lives to can’t be ignored, so the school will have to take extra measures in this area.
In as many ways as possible, Arizona needs to handle this hiatus like a normal offseason as much as possible. If that’s even possible, that is.
More time for Jamarye Joiner to heal
Had the 2020 season gone off as originally planned, Arizona would have been halfway through training camp in preparation for an Aug. 29 home game against Hawaii. And one of its most promising young players might not have been ready to go.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jamarye Joiner, who had a breakout 2019 season following his conversion from quarterback, had surgery in May to repair a Jones fracture to his foot that occurred prior to spring practice. His mother announced on Twitter last week that Joiner was “100% healed,” but whether that meant he’d have been up to full speed in time for the start of the season—either the regular one or the revised Sept. 26 one—remained to be seen.
Assuming there are no hurdles in his continued rehabilitation, Joiner should be completely fine for whenever games resume.
The overhauled defensive staff won’t be as unfamiliar with the players
Sumlin made major changes to his defensive coaching staff during the offseason, bringing in a new coordinator (ex-Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads), defensive line coach (Stan Eggen) and linebackers coach (Andy Buh). That trio got in a whopping four spring practices in March before college sports were halted.
Since then those coaches have had plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the players they’d be guiding, but nothing can replace the learning that comes from in-person interactions on the practice field.
Arizona’s next game, whenever it is, will still mark the debut of those coaches, but the further out from now that is the less uncertain they’ll be of the guys they’re in charge of.