Kevin Sumlin knew it sounded strange — even counterintuitive — as soon as he said it.
The question was about Arizona Wildcats linebacker Colin Schooler — specifically about the numbers the standout junior has posted so far this season. Schooler is on pace for career lows in tackles, stops for losses and sacks.
“I think that’s a good thing, in a crazy way,” Sumlin said. “That doesn’t sound very smart.”
The UA coach quickly clarified his hypothesis.
“We’re getting production from other people,” Sumlin said, “instead of him making 17 tackles a game all over the field.”
As Sumlin noted, Schooler still ranks in the top 10 in the Pac-12 in tackles. He has 45, which places him ninth in the league.
It’s not quite what we’ve become accustomed to — especially last season, Schooler’s first as a full-time starter — but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a drop-off in performance. Schooler said as much himself.
“I feel like I’ve performed better than I did last year, even though the numbers don’t show it,” Schooler said Tuesday. “I feel like as a defense, we’re playing faster. I feel like everybody knows what they’re doing. I don’t have to spend as much time worrying about everybody else. And I feel like that’s a good thing.”
Schooler put up huge stats as a sophomore. He totaled 119 tackles, including 21.5 tackles for loss. The latter was the fifth most in Arizona history.
Schooler earned first-team All-Pac-12 recognition from the Associated Press and honorable mention from the league itself. The Wildcats finished 5-7, however, missing out on the postseason after qualifying for a bowl the previous year.
“Last year I had a good individual season, but individual seasons don’t win you bowl games,” Schooler said. “They don’t win championships. So I feel like me having less stats, tackles, TFLs, all that, and other people having the success that they’re having, that makes our team better. And I think that’s the best thing that can happen for us right now.”
Schooler’s longtime sidekick, Tony Fields II, leads Arizona with 47 tackles. Schooler is tied for the team lead in TFLs with defensive end Jalen Harris; each has 5.5. Last season, Schooler had 13 more than No. 2 finisher PJ Johnson.
Another linebacker, Anthony Pandy, ranks third on the team in tackles (31) and TFLs (four). The emerging junior already has eclipsed his career highs in both categories.
Additionally, defensive tackle Trevon Mason has developed into a playmaker. The junior college transfer has 21 tackles, including 2.5 TFLs.
“He’s still being Colin. There’s no difference,” Fields said of Schooler. “He’s just not getting all the plays to him because everybody else is hungry now. I want some of the love too.”
One could argue that Arizona’s defense was outplaying last year’s version until the fourth quarter of last week’s game against Washington. The Wildcats trailed 27-20 early in the period. The Huskies then scored 24 fourth-quarter points to win 51-27.
Schooler didn’t like the way Arizona finished that game — especially after the Wildcats controlled the fourth quarter in their previous three contests.
“That was one thing that we didn’t like as a team and as a defense — our attitude towards the end of the game,” Schooler said.
“I blame myself. I allowed that to happen. Our defense should be flying around, playing physical and playing fast no matter what the score or how much times is left on the clock.
“We can only control our effort and our attitude. And I feel like we let the score get the best of (us) that game.”
Schooler wasn’t discouraged, though. He liked the vibe he felt around the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility the next two days
“We have a saying here: ‘So what, now what?’” Schooler said. “OK, cool, we win a couple games. So what, now what? We lost a game. OK, so what, now what? How are you gonna respond to that? How are you going to get better from it?”
Schooler believes the Wildcats are “head and shoulders above” where they were last year at this time. Arizona had a 3-3 record at the halfway point in 2018. The Cats are 4-2 now.
They’re 2-1 in the Pac-12 and tied with three others for first place in the South Division. The two wins came against South rivals UCLA and Colorado.
Schooler was among several Wildcats who listed the Pac-12 championship as their chief objective for the second half. The schedule is challenging to say the least — starting with a visit to USC on Saturday — but Schooler and his teammates believe in themselves to a greater degree than a year ago.
“This is a big week for us,” Schooler said. “We can still win the South. That’s our goal. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Tailback J.J. Taylor returned to full-time duty against Washington after missing most of the previous three games because of a high ankle sprain. He did not relish his time on the sideline.
“As you get older, time is really not on your side,” Taylor said. “These are the fun parts of my life that I want to be able to enjoy and actually (be) able to play for the university.”
Taylor didn’t say this would be his last season, but it isn’t an outrageous assumption. Taylor is a redshirt junior who plays the position that has the shortest career expectancy.
Taylor looked sharp and fresh against the Huskies, accumulating 126 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. He hurt his ankle in the first half against Texas Tech on Sept. 14, sat out against UCLA on Sept. 28 and played only one series against Colorado on Oct. 5.
Taylor said he was determined to play in the Washington game “because my freshman year I didn’t get to finish it.” Taylor suffered a broken ankle in the third quarter during the Wildcats’ last meeting with the Huskies, in 2016.
“I’m glad J.J.’s back,” Sumlin said. “He played as well as anybody. He’s a dynamic guy. He’s got burst. He’s got toughness. He really sat out for basically a month. Then to come back, hang on to the ball the way he did, run as physical as he did and find seams the way he did, that’s positive for this football team moving forward.”
• Arizona received a verbal commitment from three-star prospect Roberto Miranda. Miranda plays for the Berlin Rebels in the German Football League. Recruiting sites list the 6-3, 225-pounder as a tight end, but the UA projects him to play wide receiver.
• Three former Wildcats were picked during the first day of the inaugural XFL draft. Linebacker Scooby Wright went to the DC Defenders; tackle Gerhard de Beer went to the Houston Roughnecks; and tackle Lene Maiava went to the Los Angeles Wildcats.
• Several USC defensive players are out or questionable for Saturday’s game, Trojans coach Clay Helton told reporters. They include linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV and defensive backs Olaijah Griffin, Greg Johnson and Isaac Taylor-Stuart.
• Taylor said playing at USC feels “like another home game” for him and his fellow Southern Californians. But if the demand for tickets is higher than usual, Taylor wouldn’t know. He’s been trying to stay off his phone and social media as much as possible. “So if you want to reach me,” Taylor said, “you might as well come knock on my door.”