The Arizona Wildcats wrapped up spring practice Saturday night with a two-hour scrimmage at Arizona Stadium. Here are beat writer Michael Lev’s top five observations:
1. Tate still a tot
Kevin Sumlin’s numbers were a little off – Khalil Tate has appeared in 18 games and started nine – but his point was spot on: Tate remains a relatively inexperienced quarterback. He’s still learning and growing. Or as former UA coach Rich Rodriguez put it at the end of last season, Tate’s best football is ahead of him. The talent is undeniable. Besides his running ability – which was muted by the rules of engagement; no tackling of quarterbacks in practice – Tate throws an exquisite deep ball. His 51-yard pass to Shawn Poindexter on the first play of the second half was perfect. Tate would have completed another long ball earlier if it hadn’t slipped through Cedric Peterson’s fingertips. But Tate encountered some turbulence too. Sumlin said there were issues with the snap count, and Tate and others are adjusting to a new one-word play-calling system that enables the offense, when everyone gets it, to operate at a breathtakingly fast pace. In the first quarter, Brian Casteel was open across the middle. Tate recognized it late and threw errantly. None of this is surprising or unexpected. It was always going to be a process. If Tate develops into the well-rounded quarterback most believe he’s capable of becoming, it all will have been worth it.
2. Big man’s game
Poindexter – not Shun Brown or Tony Ellison – was Tate’s top target Saturday. Tate threw a TD pass to Poindexter, and they also hooked up for a 41-yard catch-and-run. A project when he arrived at Arizona, Poindexter is starting to learn how to use his 6-foot-5, 200-plus-pound frame. Lorenzo Burns, who’s listed at 5-10, 173, struggled to cover him. Poindexter always had tools; he lacked experience and refinement. The former volleyball player looks like one of Arizona’s most improved football players, and he could be on the verge of a big senior season in a system that seems to favor big-bodied receivers. Speaking of big bodies, sophomore tailback Nathan Tilford is starting to figure out how to use his. Position coach Clarence McKinney wanted Tilford to be more physical, and he delivered a wicked stiff arm to cornerback Azizi Hearn on a 9-yard run. Later that series, Tilford spun off a tackle and ran through another. He finished the drive by barreling into the end zone from the 1. Tilford is listed at 6-2, 206. He doesn’t always run with ideal pad level. If he learns how to maximize his power, look out.
3. Wallace and Whittaker
Redshirt-sophomore safety Jarrius Wallace is a ball hawk. When he got extended playing time against Cal last season, he intercepted a pass and broke up two others. In the spring game, Wallace had two picks, making backup QB K’Hari Lane pay for trying to squeeze passes into tight spaces. Wallace’s emergence makes the potential loss of Scottie Young Jr. easier to overcome. Young, who started nine games at free safety as a freshman, was suspended for spring practice for unspecific reasons, per Sumlin. Young’s future at Arizona is uncertain. But the position seems to be in good hands with Wallace, plus Isaiah Hayes, who started as a freshman in 2016 before missing last year because of a shoulder injury. Elsewhere in the secondary, Jace Whittaker continues to look like the Wildcats’ best cornerback by a wide margin. His strip of Tilford was extraordinary. Whittaker fell to the ground trying to corral Tilford, got up, twisted him toward the ground and ripped the ball out. Only a premature whistle prevented Whittaker from returning the fumble for a touchdown. He’s playing like an All-Pac-12 performer.
4. This time it’s personnel
Quick takes on various individual players … Lane has talent; his 30-yard TD pass to Peterson was gorgeous. But if Tate has a long way to go, Lane has even longer, especially when it comes to game management. … Converted safety Anthony Mariscal’s performances in the past two scrimmages make you wonder why he wasn’t playing running back from the get-go. He and Branden Leon look like capable, competent backs, at the very least. … It’s hard to assess the offensive line without center Nathan Eldridge and tackle Thsiyombu Lukusa. Eldridge, a two-year starter at center, presumably was held out because of injury. Lukusa, a big, talented transfer from Michigan State, recently sprained an ankle. Let’s hold off judgment on the line until the unit is whole. … It was another active day for the defensive front, in particular edge rushers Justin Belknap and Lee Anderson III. Anderson, playing a ton of snaps in place of the sparingly used Kylan Wilborn, was a regular presence in the backfield. Belknap was involved in pair of turnovers. … Jalen Harris showed good burst and bend off the edge with a sack of Tate. … Lucas Havrisik deserves an ‘A’ for effort for tackling Stanley Berryhill III on a kickoff return, but it might not have been the wisest choice; Havrisik seemed dazed after the collision and missed an extra point. Berryhill, a quick, slippery walk-on, could secure a role as a return specialist and slot receiver.
5. The big picture
Spring scrimmages can be misleading. With players sitting out because of injuries and most freshmen not yet on campus, they aren’t necessarily representative of what’s to come in fall. But this much we know about the 2018 Wildcats: They have a supremely gifted quarterback in Tate; they have a promising stable of running backs; and their defense appears to be significantly improved. The offensive line needs work, receivers’ roles must be sorted out and depth needs to be built across the roster. But Sumlin stepped into a pretty good situation. Is the overall talent level on par with what he had at Texas A&M? No. But with a productive offseason, some contributions from the freshman class and good injury luck, Arizona should be able to compete in the Pac-12 South, which lacks a runaway favorite. For all his faults, Rodriguez did not leave the cupboard bare. It’s up to Sumlin and his staff to cultivate that talent. And it’s up to the players to put in the work this summer to position themselves for success.