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Can Kevin Sumlin, Arizona Wildcats win recruiting battles while losing on the field?
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Arizona football

Can Kevin Sumlin, Arizona Wildcats win recruiting battles while losing on the field?

The Arizona Wildcats are stuck in a vicious cycle. They’re doing everything in their power to escape its clutches.

Here’s how the cycle goes: The team struggles on the field, posting back-to-back losing records. As a result, the program is unable to generate any buzz among recruits. Without an uptick in talent … the team continues to struggle.

Adam Gorney, national recruiting analyst for Rivals, summed up it neatly: “If you don’t get good recruits, you can’t win on the field. If you don’t win on the field, you can’t get good recruits.”

Arizona’s challenges don’t end there. Kevin Sumlin could be coaching for his job in 2020, his status creating an undesirable sense of unease. Additionally, the UA has three staff openings on defense — including defensive coordinator — with the early signing period just days away.

It’s hard enough to recruit to Arizona at a time when in-state prospects are fleeing and the power in the Pac-12 has shifted to the Northwest. The Wildcats’ other issues have made it that much harder.

“It’s the perfect storm,” said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.

But Arizona isn’t taking shelter. The UA is chasing the storm.

The day after the season ended with a 24-14 loss at Arizona State, Arizona coaches hit the road to recruit. They spent almost two weeks crisscrossing the country, visiting 14 states and countless prospects. The UA football Twitter account gave daily updates on the staff’s travels.

Arizona then hosted three official visitors this weekend. The early signing period begins Wednesday.

“We were able to hit our major targets, get in their homes, continue to sell our brand and … let them know that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Cody Moore, Arizona’s senior director of recruiting and high school relations. “We didn’t have the season that we wanted to. But we continue the process.”

That term — “the process” — has become the offseason mantra for the Wildcats. Sumlin emphasized it during his season-ending news conference. UA athletic director Dave Heeke doubled down on it when he confirmed Sumlin’s return moments later.

Many have questioned its veracity. Is “the process” a real thing? Or is it just something you say to make it sound as if you have a plan?

Arizona definitely has a plan. It might have had to alter it a few times, but it exists.

With signing day fast approaching, here’s a look at how the Wildcats got into their predicament — and how they intend to get out of it.

Sumlin then vs. now

Sumlin’s reputation as a top-shelf recruiter preceded his arrival in Tucson in January 2018.

Sumlin coached at Texas A&M from 2012-17, meaning he was mainly responsible for the 2013-18 recruiting classes. During that time, the Aggies never had a class ranked worse than 18th in the country, according to 247Sports and Rivals.

A&M’s 2014 class featured three five-star prospects, including two ranked among the top 10 players in the nation: defensive end Myles Garrett and quarterback Kyle Allen. Garrett would go on to become the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Allen, who played at Scottsdale Desert Mountain High School, transferred, wasn’t drafted but has started most of this season for the Carolina Panthers.

“I had super-high expectations,” Biggins said. “I thought Sumlin was the home run hire and Herm Edwards (at ASU) was more questionable. It’s a small sample size, but Edwards is the guy who’s drawing a lot of buzz. With Sumlin, the jury is still out.”

Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class — the first one Sumlin was solely in charge of — ranked in the mid-50s nationally. This year’s class, which isn’t finished, ranks in the low 60s. Over the previous six years — coinciding with Rich Rodriguez’s tenure as UA coach — Arizona’s average rank was somewhere between 42nd (Rivals) and 45th (247Sports).

Arizona State, meanwhile, ranked 28th (247Sports) and 35th (Rivals) a year ago. This year, the Sun Devils are 39th and 40th, respectively. Edwards is also 2-0 vs. Sumlin.

(It’s important to note that recruiting rankings, even those compiled by the leading websites in the industry, aren’t the be-all, end-all. Every program has its own evaluation methodology. But those rankings do provide a means to compare one program to another and generally reflect subsequent on-field success.)

So why hasn’t Sumlin been able to gain any traction? The main issue, according to the experts the Star spoke to, has been Arizona’s win-loss record. The Wildcats finished 5-7 in 2018, squandering a 19-point fourth-quarter lead against ASU to drop out of bowl contention. They took a step backward this year, falling to 4-8.

Gorney said it’s “very hard to almost impossible” to recruit at a high level without the on-field results to back it up.

“If you’re not winning in Year 1, you can still sell the vision,” he said. “When you’re going into Year 3 and still trying to sell that, I don’t know if that works anymore.”

Arizona isn’t trying to hide from reality.

“We’re not happy, obviously, with where we’re at,” Moore said. “As coaches, the guys that are in the building, we’re harder on ourselves than anybody else. We keep our nose down and just keep grinding.”

The only choice Sumlin and his staff have is to put in the work and emphasize the positive elements of the program. Chief among them: the possibility of early playing time. Twenty freshmen and redshirt freshmen — plus five first-year junior-college transfers — played for the 2019 Wildcats.

“We had a lot of new guys, new faces,” Moore said. “That’s promising. We’ve got guys coming back that are going to make an impact for our football team.”

Arizona also has significantly upgraded its facilities. The UA’s indoor practice building, the Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center, opened for business this past spring.

“This place is fantastic for recruiting,” inside receivers coach Theron Aych said at the time. “Once we get kids to Arizona, it’s going to sell itself.”

‘A huge roadblock’

Aych is one of eight full-time coaches who’s been living out of a suitcase for the past two weeks. That number normally is 11, but Arizona hadn’t filled those three defensive openings as of this weekend — despite Sumlin making those moves during the season. Hank Hobson, the interim linebackers coach, and Dennis Polian, the chief of staff and associate athletic director for football, have helped fill in the gaps.

No one can provide definitive answers to recruits who play defensive line, linebacker or safety and wonder who their position coach will be. Arizona isn’t the only program facing that dilemma. But it’s another handicap Sumlin and his staff have had to overcome.

“It’s a huge roadblock,” said Blair Angulo, who covers the mountain and island regions for 247Sports. “How are you going to sell what the program looks like?”

Besides their teammates, players spend more time with their position coach than just about anyone. They want to know if he has a track record of developing NFL players. Parents want to know who’s going to take care of their son. Visitors can’t even have off-the-record conversations with current players about certain position coaches — “What’s he really like?” — because they haven’t been hired yet.

In his role as recruiting director, Moore doesn’t meet with families in their living rooms. But he knows that the job vacancies, especially the one at defensive coordinator, come up in those conversations.

“People are like, ‘Why haven’t you hired a coordinator yet?’ But you have to get the right guy,” Moore said. “If you don’t take care of the guys you got in house, it really doesn’t matter who you bring in from a recruiting standpoint.”

The timeline suggests Sumlin is placing greater value on the coordinator’s ability to develop current or committed players than to land new ones during this cycle – although Moore said Arizona would target more prospects after the early signing window than the past two years. The second signing period begins Feb. 5.

Arizona had only 14 known commitments as of Saturday afternoon, the third-lowest total in the Pac-12 and a factor contributing to the Wildcats’ low ranking. Moore said the UA could take up to 25 players this cycle. Whether Arizona gets there remains to be seen. As with the coordinator search, the program is emphasizing quality over haste.

Assuming the Wildcats finish strong — including keeping Florence High School defensive end Regen Terry, who’s being courted by USC, and landing fellow in-state defensive end Jason Harris, the son of Sean and brother of Jalen — how high could their national ranking climb?

“Top 50,” Biggins said. “Without half your staff in place, you’ll take top 50.”

Which only begs another question: Would that be good enough for UA fans who already are short on patience?

“It’s probably slightly below expectations,” Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth said. “Where’s the Kyle Allen? Where’s the Kyler Murray?

“But you have to remind yourself that last year they got the all-time leading passer in Texas (Grant Gunnell), they got Boobie Curry, who could have gone to a lot of places.

“Every class fills different needs. Every year has a different narrative. Unfortunately, the narrative around Arizona right now is, we’re not winning.”


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.

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