The 5: Key storylines for Arizona football in 2019
Year two for Arizona Wildcats head coach Kevin Sumlin comes with less hype.
His quarterback, Khalil Tate, isn’t among the handful of expected Heisman candidates. Expectations after a sobering 5-7 year are down.
There are reasons for optimism, however.
The Wildcats enter the 2019 football season in a muddled Pac-12 South where, after Utah, any team could stand out. On paper, there’s enough returnees to feel good about Arizona and, at least according to the initial depth chart, newcomers patching holes or giving the team insurance when injuries or poor play strike.
And between Tate, junior linebacker Colin Schooler and running back J.J. Taylor, there is star power to give the Wildcats a chance to surprise. As Arizona preps to open at Hawaii this Saturday, here are five narratives facing the team heading into 2019.
1. Tate’s health
Tate went from Heisman hopeful to gimpy starting quarterback just two games into 2018. By the end of last season, there were rumblings of a potential transfer.
Tate, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone all say they’re on the same page entering 2019. And to also move on from the speculation that the coaches’ relationship with their star quarterback wasn’t ideal last year, the Wildcats have all admitted this: Tate was not even close to healthy after the first game of the year.
A sprained ankle bothered the quarterback throughout the season, but he also dealt with shoulder and turf toe problems. The result was a less-than mobile Tate, who passed for 2,530 yards by completing 56% of his passes. Still, it wasn’t all that bad. Tate threw 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
If he becomes the ground threat that saw him rush for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry two seasons ago, the senior could indeed make Arizona a threat in the Pac-12 South.
2. Searching for impact receivers
The four leading receivers by yardage in 2018 won’t return for the Wildcats. Shawn Poindexter, Shun Brown and Tony Ellison all exhausted their eligibility, while Devaughn Cooper was dismissed from the team.
Senior Cedric Peterson caught 18 balls for 268 yards and four touchdowns in 2018, but he’s one of few known commodities for Tate and the offensive coaching staff. Stanley Berryhill III (14 catches, 218 yards) is listed as Peterson’s backup, but after that the initial depth chart features unknowns.
Redshirt freshman and converted quarterback Jamarye Joiner is the most intriguing of a group that could also include sophomore Drew Dixon, freshman Boobie Curry and sophomore Brian Casteel.
3. Girth along the lines
There’s no doubt Arizona’s recruiting of junior colleges and the transfer market focused on adding size and depth along both lines.
Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel is listed as the starting left guard after sitting out last year due to transfer rules, while potential starting right tackle Paiton Fears and backup left guard Josh Donovan could contribute depth.
Defensively, 325-pound nose tackle Myles Tapusoa is expected to clog up the middle, and fellow JC transfer Trevon Mason is listed as the starting tackle.
4. Can Schooler take another step forward?
Schooler put together an eye-popping freshman season two years back and one-upped himself in 2018. He recorded 119 tackles, 21.5 for loss, plus 3.5 sacks.
Can the Wildcats ask for more?
The NFL might come calling if Schooler puts together another strong campaign this year. His numbers suggested he can produce at the next level as he sniffed the stats put up by Arizona linebacker predecessor Scooby Wright, who tallied 164 tackles, 31.0 for loss, plus 15.0 sacks in 2014.
Wright also can be a cautious tale for Schooler’s pro dreams. An injury-riddled 2015 bridged Wright’s departure for the NFL as an early-entrant. Wright was drafted by the Browns in the seventh round in 2016 and once released by Cleveland hardly played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016 and 2017 before landing with the now-defunct Arizona Hotshots this past season.
Unlike the thumper linebacker in Wright’s mold, Schooler might be more functional in the modern NFL as a run-stopper and capable coverage man. He has four interceptions — two in each season in college — with four passes defensed last season alone.
No matter where his NFL stock goes, there’s no doubt Arizona’s defense is significantly better with Schooler than without him.
5. Experienced personnel on defense
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, a hire of former head coach Rich Rodriguez, likely has his skeptics heading into 2019.
Arizona’s defense hasn’t been great since the Mike Stoops era. In yards allowed per game, it’s ranked 92nd (2018), 121st (2017), 115th (2016) in the last three years under Yates. Prior to that, under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, it finished 115th (2015), 106th (2014), 63rd (2013) and 122nd (2012).
The offense’s tempo, especially in the Rodriguez era, inflated those numbers, but there’s no doubt Arizona’s defense has been rarely average at its best.
Last year, that was especially true in the passing game. The Wildcats were 115th in opponent completion percentage (63.9), allowing the second-most pass completions per game, and gave up the 10th-most yards through the air per game.
Experience returns in the backend of that defense with corners Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker having four and five years of college experience, including redshirt seasons, under their belts. Junior safety Scottie Young Jr., and senior spur safety Tristan Cooper also have starting experience.
Schooler at MIKE linebacker joins juniors Tony Fields and Anthony Pandy, who are listed as co-starters at WILL linebacker. And with a few junior college transfers filling out defensive line roles, that leaves redshirt seniors Kylan Wilborn, Finton Connolly and Justin Belknap as the backups. All of them have starting experience, a good thing for an Arizona team trying to build more competition across its roster.