Saturday special! Just like we do every Monday throughout the season, we’re taking an in-depth look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it on TV. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s season-ending 38-35 loss to Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl:
1. Tate’s tantalizing talent
Sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate showed how high his ceiling might be – but also how far away he is from reaching it. Tate is a much better passer than he gets credit for. His ability to throw with accuracy and velocity while on the run is extraordinary. His touch on deep balls is excellent. He has made tremendous strides in those areas over the past year. But to become a complete quarterback, Tate needs to master the playbook and all the finer points of the position. There were times against Purdue when he did not read the field quickly enough. One example: the next-to-last offensive play. Tate had Shun Brown and Shawn Poindexter open underneath. Tate didn’t see them, scrambled left and threw the ball away. Given that Tate seems to have good field vision in general – when receivers break into the clear downfield, he invariably finds them – his capacity to process coverages should improve with experience and time. Tate also inexplicably stepped out of bounds on three occasions behind the line of scrimmage, costing yardage when he could have saved it by simply tossing the ball away. He seemed to figure that out by game’s end. Bottom line: Tate has the talent to have a Heisman-caliber season next year. If he puts in the work (and stays healthy), he can reach that level.
2. Backed into a corner
The Boilermakers attacked the Wildcats’ cornerbacks in a way no opponent did all season. Purdue receivers Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou combined for 20 receptions, 267 yards and four touchdowns. Jace Whittaker had a rough first quarter, surrendering two TDs, before finding his footing; he finished with 12 tackles, 1.5 TFLs and three pass breakups. Lorenzo Burns had a rough fourth quarter, missing a tackle on third-and-10 and misplaying the ball on the winning TD pass to Mahoungou. It’s a shame, because both corners improved over the course of the season; their best selves just weren’t on display for 60 minutes at Levi’s Stadium. Still, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates never stopped trusting them, leaving them in single coverage most of the night. I know for a fact the players like having that responsibility. I’d like to see Yates trust his backup cornerbacks a little bit more, so Whittaker and Burns don’t have to play all the snaps. Having fresher legs in the fourth quarter would have helped Wednesday night. Look for Tony Wallace and Malik Hausman to push for playing time in their second seasons. Incoming freshmen Jhevon Hill and McKenzie Barnes might too.
3. Great Dane
Senior safety Dane Cruikshank was Arizona’s best defensive player in the Foster Farms Bowl. Cruikshank finished with eight tackles, a sack and three pass breakups. He made plays near the line of scrimmage and in coverage. When Yates shifted Cruikshank from cornerback to “Spur” in training camp, some were skeptical: Why deplete a thin position to supplement a deep one? It turned out to be the right move for all parties. It also showed that when it comes to the secondary, Yates really knows his stuff. He might have even helped turn Cruikshank into a legitimate pro prospect. Cruikshank will participate in the upcoming East-West Shrine game, along with guard Jacob Alsadek. Whether they get drafted is a big deal, not only for them but for the UA program. Arizona hasn’t had a ton of players drafted in recent years – none in 2013, ’15 or ’17; and no one picked higher than the fourth round since Nick Foles went in Round 3 in 2012. Why does this matter? It hurts recruiting. It’s hard to sell players on the idea that they’ll develop into pros at Arizona if there’s little recent evidence to support that contention.
4. This time it’s personnel
Every week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … OT Gerhard de Beer, invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, also will get a shot in the pros. He has the size and athletic ability to play in the NFL but remains raw. If a team is patient with him, it could pay off in 2-3 years. … The next step for RB J.J. Taylor is to recognize when to simply put his shoulder down and take a short gain. He tried a spin move in a congested space in the fourth quarter, and it resulted in a 3-yard loss. … Poindexter had his two most productive games at the end of the season, totaling seven catches for 124 yards and a touchdown vs. Arizona State and Purdue. The extra year will benefit him big-time; he has a huge upside. … Arizona needs to remember that Bryce Wolma can catch too; the freshman tight end wasn’t targeted vs. Purdue. … I liked what I saw from Trevor Wood at defensive end, and I know the coaching staff does too. If he’s willing to commit to it, he could become a force at that spot. … LBs Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler shouldn’t be playing every snap. I thought Schooler, in particular, looked a little tired in the fourth quarter. … Don’t be surprised if Troy Young pushes Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles at “Bandit” safety next season. Flannigan-Fowles slumped after a strong start and never seemed to fully regain his confidence.
5. The future
It was probably the line of the year in a UA postgame news conference. I asked Tate what he thought about Arizona’s future. “It’s bright,” he replied, smiling and squinting. “It’s like these lights up here.” Indeed, the Wildcats’ prospects look promising. Tate will be entering his junior year with almost a full season of starts under his belt. Arizona’s top tailback (Taylor) returns, as do four of its top five receivers. The offensive line takes some hits, but Layth Friekh’s return eases the impact. The defense loses only two players who started in Santa Clara: Cruikshank and defensive tackle Luca Bruno. But as positive as all that seems, it also feels precarious. The depth behind Tate is worrisome if Brandon Dawkins decides to transfer. The offensive line could endure growing pains. All those young defenders should get better, but is there an edge rusher who keeps offensive coordinators up at night? The coaching staff isn’t totally set either, with a 10th assistant yet to be hired and more movement possible. All that being said, expectations should be high for 2018. Arizona should be ranked heading into the season. The pressure is on Rich Rodriguez again. A 7-6 record won’t cut it next year.