The Arizona Wildcats are set to open their first training camp under Kevin Sumlin tonight. All week long we’ve been asking — and answering — key questions about the 2018 Cats heading into camp.
By Michael Lev Arizona Daily Star
No. 1: Who will emerge as the top backup to quarterback Khalil Tate?
For the first time in a while, Arizona enters training camp with zero questions about the identity of its starting quarterback. Although he still has plenty of room for growth and improvement, Tate is that guy.
As much as Sumlin and new offensive coordinator/QB coach Noel Mazzone will work with Tate to help him become a more advanced and disciplined pocket passer, his aggressive tendencies remain a big part of his makeup. As adept as Tate is at running away from defenders, he’ll run over them if necessary.
Tate banged up both of his shoulders last season. But Arizona’s QB room looked very different back then. Veteran Brandon Dawkins opened the season as the starter. After Tate took over and took off, the coaching staff still could tap Dawkins in a pinch. Not only did he have college experience, he had college starting experience, and lots of it.
The new staff does not have that luxury. Only one of the four players vying to be Tate’s backup has taken a college snap — sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, who played a handful in a pair of early-season blowouts last year. (Had the new rule been in place, Rodriguez would have been classified as a redshirt freshman this year. More on that in a bit.)
Rodriguez and redshirt freshman K’Hari Lane at least were able to go through spring ball, giving them 15 practices to learn the new playbook and apply it on the field. The first official practice — with coaches and footballs — for recently arrived freshmen Kevin Doyle and Jamarye Joiner will be Friday. They have a lot of catching up to do to become viable contenders.
Not that they can’t. The newcomers have just as good a chance as the holdovers to ascend to the No. 2 spot behind Tate.
At last week’s Pac-12 Media Day, Sumlin gave no indication which direction he was leaning — likely because he doesn’t know yet. He did note that the staff remains in an “evaluation period” with most of the roster.
“There will be a Plan B development,” Sumlin said when asked about the backup QB situation. “Along those lines, the new redshirt rule will play into that.”
Sumlin was extremely enthused about the new rule, which allows a player to participate in up to four games without losing his redshirt. Sumlin said the new rule “has changed how you’re going to manage your roster.” A story in The Athletic explained how it could be especially advantageous for quarterbacks — giving them a chance to get some game action without it costing a year of eligibility.
Don’t be surprised if the battle for the No. 2 job lingers into the regular season. And don’t be surprised if the Week 3 game against Southern Utah serves as a trial balloon for the would-be backup or backups.
“We’ll see,” Sumlin said. “First of all, we’ve gotta figure out who that is.”
No. 2: What will the secondary look like entering the season opener?
For a unit that has some of the team’s most experienced and productive players, there are a surprising number of unknowns.
Atop the list after Monday’s roster reveal is the identity of the players who will man the Nos. 3 and 4 cornerback spots.
Senior Jace Whittaker is ensconced at one starting position; with Tony Wallace no longer on the team, Lorenzo Burns seems secure on the other side. Beyond them, it’s anyone’s guess.
The candidates include veterans, newcomers and some players who are kind of in between.
Malcolm Holland, Sammy Morrison and Antonio Parks at least have game experience. So does grad transfer Tim Hough, who the Star reported is set to join the team via UNLV. The only true-freshman corner is McKenzie Barnes, who offers intriguing length (6-foot-1) but might not be strong enough yet (178 pounds).
Redshirt freshmen Malik Hausman and Azizi Hearn — a walk-on whom the coaches like — are about as unproven as Barnes.
At least two players from that group will have to emerge as reliable options, because it’s unrealistic to expect Whittaker and Burns to play every snap — and to remain healthy and available every game for the second year in a row.
The Wildcats are set at the “Bandit” safety position with senior Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who has 26 career starts. It’s a little more muddled at the other safety spots.
Hard-hitting junior Tristan Cooper enters camp as the favorite to succeed Dane Cruikshank at “Spur.” But it’s hardly a sure thing.
Redshirt freshman Xavier Bell will push Cooper, as might true freshman Dayven Coleman. It’s also possible that one of the projected free safeties will be shifted to another position if Scottie Young Jr. is reinstated, which would create a logjam at that spot.
Young started nine games at free safety as a freshman and recorded 53 tackles, including 3.5 for losses. He was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor in connection with a domestic-violence incident in late September but didn’t miss any game time. Young was suspended for spring practice. It’s unclear if there's a connection between the arrest and the suspension.
If Young is reinstated for fall camp, he’ll push for the starting job, just as he did last year. Arizona has another capable free safety in heady redshirt sophomore Jarrius Wallace. And the Wildcats welcome back Isaiah Hayes, who started as a freshman in 2016 before sitting out last season because of shoulder surgery.
There are other safeties we didn’t even mention. The point is, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin and safeties coach John Rushing have a lot to sort out — maybe more than anyone anticipated — between now and the Sept. 1 opener against BYU.
No. 3: How challenging will it be to put together a cohesive offensive line?
No UA assistant has a tougher job this month than offensive line coach Joe Gilbert. Not only must Arizona replace three starters up front, but one of the returning starters has to sit out the first two games.
Coach Kevin Sumlin sounded at least mildly concerned about the line at Pac-12 Media Day last week.
“That’s a work in progress,” Sumlin said. “You don’t lose (three) guys and come back the same way the next year. When you lose that amount of experience … we’re working on it.”
The full-time starters who are back are left tackle Layth Friekh and center Nathan Eldridge. Unfortunately, Friekh will miss the first two games — the deal that was cut with the NCAA so Friekh could gain a fifth year of eligibility.
Friekh, a steady presence at left tackle for the past three seasons, will have to get his share of reps to be fully ready to jump back into the lineup in Week 3. But Gilbert also must get someone else prepared, and the rest of the first-team unit will have to work with both players.
“Somebody else better get a bunch of (reps) before the first two games,” Sumlin said. “There’s a way to do that. We’ll have a plan.”
The plan could involve transfer Tshiyombu Lukusa, who Sumlin acknowledged is “sort of a mystery.” Lukusa played as a true freshman at Michigan State, temporarily quit football, then decided to resume his career with the Wildcats. He redshirted last season.
Lukusa did not participate in the spring game because of a sprained ankle. But he apparently put in a lot of work during the offseason, dropping 20-plus pounds since last year.
“In his defense, some of these guys that transferred in here, they weren’t in shape,” Sumlin said. “The transfers who didn’t do much or sat out a year, it was a big summer for all these guys, particularly the offensive linemen.”
The other returning starter, Eldridge, does not fall into that category. But like Lukusa, Eldridge was limited in spring. He did not participate in either of the scrimmages open to the media.
Sumlin said the staff was “managing” Eldridge, who has “had some issues with his legs and things like that.”
“Getting him to the games is what we want to do,” Sumlin said.
Assuming Eldridge will be fine, that still leaves three other spots (plus the odd situation at left tackle). The top guards in spring were Michael Eletise and Bryson Cain. Eletise was a big-time recruit in 2016 whose time finally might be here. His classmate and buddy, Cain, missed last season because of injury. He might have been the third tackle last year if healthy. It remains to be seen how he’ll fare on the inside.
Veteran Cody Creason is the favorite to start at right tackle; he split time with Gerhard de Beer there last year and has seven career starts. Lukusa also could be a factor at right tackle once Friekh returns.
Regardless of the composition of the starting unit for the Sept. 1 opener against BYU, Arizona doesn’t have as many scholarship linemen as Sumlin would like. His target goal is 15. The Wildcats currently have 12, assuming Lukusa is on scholarship.
But even that group has asterisks. Two of the players, Donovan Laie and David Watson, are true freshmen. Another, Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel, probably won’t be eligible this season after playing in five games for the Aggies last year.
“Don’t know,” Sumlin said when asked about Congel’s eligibility.
When it comes to Arizona’s offensive line, there are a lot of unknowns.
No. 4: The defensive line will be bigger, but will it also be better?
This much we know: The broadcast networks televising UA games no longer will be able to run graphics depicting how undersized the defensive line is.
Of the seven scholarship defensive tackles on the roster, five are listed at 300-plus pounds: Finton Connolly (301), Dereck Boles (306), PJ Johnson (335), Mykee Irving (337) and Sione Taufahema (339).
Last year’s roster had three 300-pound D-linemen. The year before that, Arizona had just two.
Size isn’t everything, of course. The weight has to be “good weight.” The players still have to be able to move and hold up over 60 minutes for 12-plus weeks.
But it’s reasonable to assume that with added size comes added strength. Bigger bodies up front should make the Wildcats more effective against the run, keeping blockers off of playmaking linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II.
“They help me out so much,” Schooler said. “You look at those guys and it’s, ‘OK, I want to be behind those guys.'"
Arizona’s run defense improved slightly last year, but the Wildcats still ranked ninth in the Pac-12 for the third year in a row. Here are the numbers from the past three seasons:
- 2017: 185.1 ypg/4.6 ypc
- 2016: 194.2 ypg/4.7 ypc
- 2015: 198.6 ypg/4.5 ypc
(Oddly, Arizona was way better at stopping the run in 2014 — allowing 169.8 yards per game and 4.1 per carry — yet ranked 11th in the league.)
The defense really struggled against the run in November, allowing an average of 303.7 rushing yards in road losses to USC, Oregon and Arizona State. The Trojans and Ducks, in particular, steamrolled the Wildcats, amassing 331 and 353 yards, respectively. It’s no coincidence that Arizona managed just one sack and one interception in each of those games; it all works together.
Boles returns as the anchor on the inside, and Johnson emerged in spring as the favorite to start alongside him. The massive JC transfer appears to have the requisite athleticism; a recently posted video shows him dunking a basketball.
Lol they asked me could I still dunk at 330 pic.twitter.com/T4agm0T3Zc— PJ Johnson (@lulalandpj) July 28, 2018
The Wildcats also appear to have enough big bodies to form a robust rotation. Connolly showed promise last year, as did then-freshman Kurtis Brown, who checks in for camp at a relatively svelte 291 pounds (up from 285 last year).
Taufahema, back from a knee injury that cost him last season, also could push for meaningful playing time. Freshmen Irving and Nahe Sulunga, who were teammates in high school, could be the DT duo of the future.
All of it looks good on paper. Whether it translates into dominance on the field remains to be seen. If the defensive line can just be decent, it would make a sizable difference.
No. 5: Is Shawn Poindexter about to become the next big thing at receiver for Arizona?
It would be quite a story if it came to fruition.
Poindexter was supposed to play volleyball in college; didn’t attend school for about two years to make money and help his family; launched his college football career at a JC that’s about to drop football; and needed a waiver from the NCAA to extend his UA career for one more season.
In what could be a boon for Poindexter, he’ll play that final season under a new coaching staff that might dial up more plays to capitalize on his size (6-5, 218) and burgeoning skill.
“I think with this coaching staff, they see my potential and they want to take advantage of it,” Poindexter said. “I’m just going to continue to work every single day and hope that they continue to trust (me) and give me the ball.”
Poindexter caught only 19 passes last season, but he began to emerge as a real threat in its final stages. In the regular-season finale, Poindexter caught two passes for a career-high 53 yards. In the season-ending Foster Farms Bowl, he set career marks with five grabs and 71 yards and scored his first career touchdown.
About four months later, in the spring game, Poindexter caught six passes for a team-high 133 yards and a TD (all stats unofficial). Then last week, at Pac-12 Media Day, quarterback Khalil Tate revealed that Poindexter worked out with him in California.
“That tells me he’s trying to get better,” Tate said.
Poindexter has ideal measurables. Mastering the minutiae of a position that demands attention to detail has been an ongoing quest since he arrived on campus.
Asked this summer where he has made the most growth, Poindexter said the following:
“Two areas, actually. I would say patience — just trusting the process and how everything works. And then confidence. I came in here, and I didn’t know what kind of player I was. I really didn’t play football. On top of that, we (had) a bunch of different guys with a bunch of different personalities, so you just kind of had to find where you fit in.”
As the only returning scholarship wide receiver on the roster who’s over 6 feet tall and has appeared in a college game, Poindexter has a clearly defined role in this offense: He’s the big outside receiver who can use his body to defeat smaller defensive backs.
Asked in spring who had stood out in his group, outside receivers coach Taylor Mazzone began with this:
“Shawn’s ability to use his length. Him being 6-5, 6-4, the red zone’s kind of his number. That’s where we’re going to try to use him more.”
Every other UA wideout falls into one of two categories: slot receiver or inexperienced/unproven. Some in the former group, such as Shun Brown and Tony Ellison, should retain their prominent playmaking roles. Redshirt freshman Stanley Berryhill III — who also had a big spring game (7-103-1) and is among the chosen ones for initial training-camp media interviews — is another slot receiver to watch.
The outside group is teeming with intriguing youngsters and newcomers. Poindexter is their senior leader, positioned and poised for a breakout.