Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Arizona

Sep 22, 2018; Corvallis, OR, USA; Arizona Wildcats linebacker Colin Schooler (7) tackles Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Trevon Bradford (8) during the second half at Reser Stadium. The Arizona Wildcats won 35-14. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Arizona Wildcats

Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin (third season)

2019 Record: 4-8

2020 NFL Draft Picks: None

Overview: Forgive the pun, but the Arizona Wildcats have been a virtual desert for NFL scouts this century.

Defensive tackle P.J. Johnson (Detroit, No. 229 overall) was the only player selected from the team during head coach Kevin Sumlin’s first two seasons in Tucson and that came in 2019. Worse, only seven Wildcats total have been drafted into the NFL since the Philadelphia Eagles made quarterback Nick Foles the 88 pick of the 2012 draft, notable not only because he went on to win Super Bowl LII MVP honors, of course, but also because he was Arizona’s last top 100 selection.

The Wildcats have produced just two first round selections since the turn of the century – running back Trung Candidate way back in 2000 to the then-St. Louis Rams (31 overall) and, most recently, cornerback Antoine Cason, who was picked 27 by the then-San Diego Chargers.

Of course, Sumlin was hired to reverse Arizona’s downward spiral, though that certainly hasn’t happened yet. In fact, while former head coach Rich Rodriguez contributed little to the NFL, his Wildcats at least were relevant in the Pac-12, earning bowl game bids after five of his six seasons.

Sumlin inherited a 7-6 squad in 2018 and has watched the team slip to 5-7 and then 4-8 the past two seasons while building an offense based around holdover dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, who was signed by Philadelphia following the 2020 NFL draft as a free agent but has since been released by the team.

While Tate showed a knack for highlight-reel worthy plays for the Wildcats, he never took the next step as a passer, struggling with turnovers in 2019. At least statistically, that was not the case for true freshman Grant Gunnell, who played in eight games and started three for Arizona last year, generating an encouraging 9:1 touchdown to interception ratio while completing 65.2% of his passes. Tate, by comparison, completed 60.2% of his passes last year (58% for his career) and had 11 interceptions to go along with his 14 passing touchdowns.

With a talented and prototypically-built young quarterback in Gunnell hopefully ready to blossom, Sumlin’s Wildcats could soon be back on the prowl in the Pac-12. To do so, however, the club will need to improve significantly on defense, as well – a task made much more difficult with two of their better tacklers opting to transfer.

The Wildcats lost safety Scotty Young, Jr. to West Virginia (tied for third on the team with 66 tackles in 2019) as a graduate transfer back in May and just this past week, speedy outside linebacker Tony Fields II has announced his plans to leave the desert for greener fields, elsewhere.

As a reflection of Fields’ raw talent, some notable programs have already offered the graduate one-year scholarships, including Texas, Southern Cal, UCLA, Minnesota, Boise State, Kansas State and West Virginia, among others. 

If there is a silver lining to the loss of Young and Fields – Arizona’s second leading tackler last year – it is that the Wildcats return one of the most productive defenders in the entire Pac-12 in star middle linebacker Colin Schooler, a reigning all-conference pick.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Colin Schooler, ILB, 6-0, 229, 4.80, SR

It is too simple to characterize middle linebackers as the quarterback of the defense but when rebuilding a program, production and leadership at these two positions certainly can kick-start the process. As statistically-flashy as the true freshman Gunnel was on offense for the Wildcats this past season, it does not compare to the immediate impact Schooler provided back in 2017, when he was named the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.

Schooler played his prep ball at Mission Viejo in California, one of the nation’s top programs. Despite starring at both running back and linebacker on the gridiron (as well as in basketball and track and field), the two-time team captain and senior MVP was viewed as “just” a three-star recruit, joining the Wildcats after receiving interest from Oregon, Nevada, Fresno State and New Mexico, among others.

He played in all 13 games for the Wildcats as a true freshman, starting the final nine at middle linebacker and registering 95 tackles, including a team-high 67 solo stops. Schooler showed a knack for big plays, leading the nation’s freshmen defenders with 13.5 tackles for loss (including four sacks) and generating three turnovers (two interceptions and a forced fumble), taking one pick back 66 yards for a touchdown against Washington State.

Schooler was even better as a sophomore, jumping from Honorable Mention all-conference accolades to First Team honors after leading the team with a career-high 119 tackles, including 72 solos and an eye-popping 21.5 tackles for loss, averaging a Power Five-best 1.79 TFLs per game. The gaudy total was the fifth highest single-season tackle-for-loss numbers since Arizona began tracking these results in 1967.

With Young and Fields stepping up their production as the Wildcats played better team defense in 2019, Schooler’s numbers slipped slightly, though he led the team in solo stops and tackles for loss for the third consecutive year. Schooler once again earned honorable mention accolades from the league media, registering 98 tackles, including 11 for loss (1.5 sacks), while starting all 12 games.

Strengths: Traditional glass-eating, run-stuffing middle linebacker who likes nothing more than meeting backs in the hole. Highly aggressive in run support, showing not only athleticism in his burst to and through the hole but impressive instincts, helping him play even faster and leaving would-be blockers in his wake.

Trusts what he sees, coming downhill violently and providing bone-rattling collisions. Generally wraps his arms for the textbook tackle but often does not need to do so, offering intriguing knockdown power which will no doubt generate excitement from scouts for special teams and perhaps even lead blocker duties…

Comfortable in the sea of humanity, showing aggression and strength in initiating contact with would-be blockers. Anchors nicely at the point of attack, showing balance and leg drive to plug gaps.

At his best close to the line of scrimmage but shows awareness in coverage, recognizing route combinations and showing good hand-eye coordination to tip passes (seven over his career) and create turnovers, intercepting four passes, thus far. Isn’t an elite athlete but has at least adequate straight-line speed for the position, as well as vision and a little wiggle after the catch, though not as much ball security in this clip, as one would prefer. 

Weaknesses: Average size/speed combination for the NFL level, suggesting that he’s already maxed out… Isn’t the reliable open-field tackler his gaudy statistics suggest… Too often lunges when ballcarriers are near, resulting in some massive collisions when he guesses right, but too many whiffs when he’s wrong. Doesn’t break down well enough, proving to be more of a straight-linish athlete who struggles changing directions in close quarters.

Plays with blinders on, at times, trusting his own instincts too much and losing sight of the ball. Only average recovery speed when he’s caught peeking into the backfield.

NFL Player Comparison: Micah Kiser, Los Angeles Rams – The 6-0, 244 pound Kiser was a virtual human sledgehammer at Virginia but his average speed has left him mostly on the sidelines for the Rams since he was selected in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. Schooler has been a standout since Day One in the Pac-12, but there are enough flaws in his game to suggest that he won’t be as highly regarded by scouts as the media.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Sixth-Seventh Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Arizona:

1. Colin Schooler, ILB, 6-0, 229, 4.80, SR

2. Josh McCauley, C, 6-2, 292, 5.20, rSR

3. Lorenzo Burns, CB, 5-10, 180, 4.45, rSR

4. Jalen Harris, OLB, 6-4, 250, 4.80, rJR

5. Gary Brightwell, RB, 6-0, 210, 4.55, SR

6. Trevon Mason, DT, 6-4, 310, 5.20, SR

7. Anthony Pandy, OLB, 6-0, 225, 4.70

8. Brian Casteel, WR, 6-0, 195, 4.55, SR

9. Jamarye Joiner, WR, 6-1, 210, 4.55, rSoph

10. Christian Young, OLB, 6-1, 217, 4.65, JR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates