After Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez addressed the media late Saturday night, five Wildcats entered the interview room in two waves. They all had something in common besides having played for the winning side in Arizona’s 58-37 victory over then-No. 15 Washington State:
They’re all underclassmen.
The five players were sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate; redshirt freshmen J.J. Taylor and Jamie Nunley; and true freshmen Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler.
They’re part of a youth movement that has accelerated Arizona’s schedule. The Wildcats weren’t supposed to be any good this season. They went 3-9 a year ago and were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South, receiving the fewest votes in either division in the league’s annual preseason media poll.
With several freshmen expected to play prominent roles, especially on defense, Arizona seemed to be in the midst of a rebuilding project that would take at least a year, maybe two.
Instead, two-thirds of the way through the 2017 season, the Wildcats (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) have earned a spot in another poll — the AP Top 25. Arizona is ranked 23rd in the ranking released Sunday, its first appearance since Week 4 of 2015.
Rodriguez told his players just before kickoff that they had a chance to become relevant again with a victory over the Cougars. He turned out to be prophetic.
“I felt good about these guys since August,” Rodriguez said. “I felt good about them in practice. We’ve got a lot of new players. We’ve got a smaller senior class; they’re doing a great job with leadership. They’ve got a lot of pride.
“You’ve gotta work for it. You’ve gotta show it in your approach every day. There’s still a lot of football left. We have four games left, and there’s a lot at stake. I’m really proud that our guys put themselves in a position now to be more relevant and to have a lot at stake in the last month of the season.”
Arizona visits No. 17 USC on Saturday with first place in the South on the line. The Trojans are 7-2, 5-1 after a 48-17 victory at Arizona State.
They will face a Wildcats team featuring first- and second-year players spread all across the two-deep. Entering this past weekend, Arizona had played 27 freshmen, including 17 true freshmen. The latter was tied for fourth among FBS programs.
Two true freshmen have started every game on defense: Fields, at “Will” linebacker, and Kylan Wilborn, at “Stud.” Schooler has started the past four games at “Mike” linebacker.
Another true freshman, Scottie Young Jr., started the first six games at free safety before getting hurt. His classmate, Troy Young, replaced him in the lineup at Cal. Jarrius Wallace, a redshirt freshman, started against Washington State.
Fields leads the team with 58 tackles. Redshirt-freshman cornerback Lorenzo Burns is second with 53 and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Schooler ranks fourth in tackles (47), fourth in picks (two) and second in stops for losses (4.5). Wilborn leads the team in tackles for loss (seven), sacks (five) and forced fumbles (three).
Tate, who just turned 19, leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency (187.5 rating) and ranks second in rushing yards per game (154.3). Taylor ranks second on the team with 519 rushing yards. Nunley caught two passes against WSU for 116 yards and two scores.
Asked about Arizona’s ability to make big plays, Rodriguez said: “The nice part about it is they’re all young. You’re talking about true freshmen, sophomores, second-year players. It’s pretty exciting.”
Only one of the five interviewees participated in last year’s 69-7 loss at Washington State. That would be Tate, who played briefly during garbage time. None were around for the Wildcats’ 45-42 loss to the Cougars the previous season.
Sometimes it helps to not know any better.
“There’s two extremes,” safeties coach Jahmile Addae said last week. “There’s the kid that doesn’t know the inherent danger of what he’s doing, so he doesn’t really care. That’s a Scottie Young. He’s out there playing, and it doesn’t bother him.
“Then there’s some kids where the lights can be too bright. You like to hope you get the kid who doesn’t give a (darn). It doesn’t happen every time.”
The majority of Arizona’s freshmen have proved they can handle the responsibility. It has become the expectation.
“Coach Rod has said a couple of times (that) we’re pretty deep into the season now,” Schooler said. “We’re not just freshmen coming in out of high school; we’re experienced freshmen.
“So he expects us to play better. I feel like we’ve done a good job.”
‘Skinny’ but strong
Saturday night’s freshman contributors also included the player Rodriguez affectionately referred to as “the little, skinny kicker.”
Lucas Havrisik – listed at 6-2, 173 pounds — made a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half. That tied the school record shared by Lee Pistor, Max Zendejas and John Prasuhn.
Rodriguez said Havrisik had made a “65- or 70-yarder” in practice during the week.
“He had a little breeze behind him,” Rodriguez said of the 57-yarder, which had plenty of room to spare. “That was key. It gave us some momentum going into the locker room.”
- The USC game will kick off at 7:45 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN. Every Arizona game this season has started at 5 p.m. or later. The start time for the home finale against Oregon State on Nov. 11 could be announced as soon as Monday.
- Arizona has won four straight conference games, its longest streak since the end of the 2014 regular season. The Wildcats haven’t had a five-game Pac-12 winning streak since 1998.
- Saturday’s victory was Arizona’s first over a ranked opponent since the UA defeated No. 10 Utah on Nov. 14, 2015. It was the Wildcats’ eighth win over a ranked opponent under Rodriguez.
- Arizona has scored 45 or more points in four straight games for the first time in program history. The Wildcats are averaging 45 points per game.
- Arizona went 4-0 in October, the first time the Wildcats have gone undefeated in October since 1992.
- Tate ran for 840 yards in the month of October, the most by any FBS player in 10 seasons, according to ESPN. Tate needs 24 yards to break B.J. Denker‘s single-season school record for quarterbacks of 949 yards, set in 2013.
- The Wildcats forced four three-and-outs in the first half, giving them 31 for the season — more than they had all of last year.