Arizona-Hawaii: 5 things to watch, prediction
The opening phrase of the Arizona football season should be, "If Tate is great ...
That's it. That's a lot to put on senior quarterback Khalil Tate, still all of 20 years old. He's the X-factor for the Wildcats, in the conference and even on the national scene, because if Tate if great, Arizona is going bowling, could threaten in the Pac-12 South and he might return to being that Heisman candidate he was in the 2018 offseason.
What happened last year, when he rushing total swooned from 1,411 yards in 2017 to 224, and his completion percentage dipped from 62.0 to 56.3?
Take your pick:
The coaches didn't use him correctly; he stubbornly refused to run when he had the chance because he wanted to show off his arm; the Week 2 ankle injury that lingered most of the season; defenses scheming differently against him; dealing with major expectations ...
Tate and coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have said all the right things through the offseason about being on the same page, about Tate's maturity, his leadership ... all that stuff. That's fine.
I'm just old enough and jaded enough to not put too much stock in preseason talk. Show me. Show me Saturday night at Hawaii.
If Tate is great, Arizona can be 8-4. If Tate is not, then it will be hard to move past last season's 5-7.
So, he's Topic No. 1. How about some others:
2. Arizona is going to run
The Wildcats have J.J. Taylor, Gary Brightwell, Bam Smith, Nathan Tilford and freshman Michael Wiley. Running back is their best position, and UA has led the Pac-12 in rushing in each of the past three seasons.
With a young receiving corps getting its feet wet, and Hawaii playing a hurry-up Run-and-Shoot offense -- the Warriors were last nationally in time of possession last season (23 minutes, 30 seconds per game), let's see the Cats set a physical tone and wear down Hawaii on what is sure to be a muggy late afternoon in Honolulu.
3. Time for JC defensive linemen
Myles Tapusoa and Trevon Mason are atop the depth chart at defensive tackle, which is a wonderful development. The junior college transfers did what junior college transfers are supposed to be -- come in and win jobs.
I wrote about the state of the defensive line earlier this week, notably about how the depth is better than in previous years, helped by the addition of these two JC imports.
Senior Justin Belknap said the message from the coaching staff was this: "Go hard, 100 percent every day. We have enough depth to get you off the field if you get tired. There's no reason for you to hold back or not go as hard as you can every day."
4. Cornerstones on defense
Arizona hasn't had a first- or second-team all-conference defensive end since Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore in 2010. Maybe sophomore Jalen Harris can be that guy.
Arizona hasn't had a first- or second-team all-conference cornerback since Trevin Wade (second team) in 2009; Antoine Cason in 2007 was the last first-teamer. Maybe senior Jace Whittaker can be that guy, coming off a redshirt year due to injury.
Coaches raved above Whittaker's leadership this season, and he has 32 career pass break-ups.
When you have guys who can do their job at cornerback and pass-rushing end without any help ... now, you've got the foundation of a defense that can do some things.
5. Young 'uns at WR
Arizona brings back only 35 receptions from its receiving corps, mostly from Cedric Peterson. So, it's step-up time for Drew Dixon, Brian Casteel, converted QB Jamarye Joiner, freshman Jalen Curry, Stanley Berryhill III ... and a couple of guys who haven't been talked about all that much -- late JC addition Tayvian Cunningham (a 5-8 speedster) and redshirt freshman Zach Williams.
I've been leaning toward taking Hawaii with the 11 points it is getting from the oddsmakers, but I've flipped to Arizona. I think the Wildcats will establish the run and show some defensive improvement against a Hawaii team that averaged 38.9 pass attempts per game last season, the 12th-most in the nation.
Arizona 42, Hawaii 27.