TUCSON, Ariz. — The college landscape can change quickly from one offseason to the next, and the Pac-12 is a prime example of that with five new head coaches set to begin the next chapters of their careers this weekend.
At Arizona, that is Kevin Sumlin, who after being fired following six seasons at Texas A&M, didn’t have to wait long to get the call from Tucson. Sumlin took over in January and brought over a few of the pieces he had in College Station, most notably offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
The new coaching staff inherited a roster with numerous impressive pieces, including electric quarterback Khalil Tate, who heads into the season with plenty of Heisman Trophy buzz, as well as linebacker standouts Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler. Schooler earned the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year award in 2017.
In all, the Wildcats return eight of their top 10 tacklers from last season in addition to their top rusher, JJ Taylor, plus the top two receivers Tony Ellison and Shun Brown. It is solid base for Sumlin and his staff to build from heading into the season opener against BYU on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium.
“It’s actually gone by pretty quickly since Aug. 2,” Sumlin said about the preparations for his Arizona debut. “Since we’ve gotten into camp I think our guys have done a really nice job of getting better.”
If there is a major question mark with Arizona heading into its season opener it is along the offensive line, where the Wildcats have had to do some retooling after losing some significant pieces off last year’s team.
“We’re coming together,” Sumlin said about the offensive line. “We better be coming together pretty quickly. … The whole O-line situation is being solidified.”
Sumlin pointed out this week that BYU is one of the biggest teams Arizona will see all season with 6-foot-9 defensive end Corbin Taufusi being one of eight defensive linemen listed at 6-foot-4 or taller. The Wildcats have had to mix and match up front heading into the new season, but the progress has been good enough that the coaching staff feels somewhat confident about the group going into Saturday’s game.
“I think they’re a work in progress,” Mazzone said of the line. “Obviously the numbers are down there and there’s a lot of youth. I really have seen the lights come on for them. … I think they’re really starting to understand.”
–QB Khalil Tate comes into his junior season as the unquestioned face of the program and the team’s most important player. Tate took over the job as a sophomore, exploding in a game against Colorado for 327 yards on the ground to go with four touchdowns. He eventually dominated the month of October for the Wildcats before running into a rough patch in November and capping his sophomore year with five touchdown passes in the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue.
Tate will not catch any teams off guard this season and while the team will rely on his feet for production, it is his arm that coordinator Noel Mazzone and the offensive staff hope to develop this year.
“I’m really excited about where he is as far as our passing game. He’s really picking that up and he’s really starting to make some good progression reads and understanding coverages,” Mazzone said.
–FS Scottie Young Jr. was arrested last season on a misdemeanor assault charge and was suspended for all of spring ball and the start of training camp. He has rejoined the team but will serve a one-game suspension as part of the stipulations for his return to the Wildcats.
–OL Layth Friekh will miss the first two games as part his agreement with the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility. Friekh has been a three-year starter at left tackle.