Arizona freshman running back Michael Wiley, right, has 51 rushing yards to go with 11 catches for 129 yards this year. “He does a lot for us,” said coach Kevin Sumlin.

The Arizona Wildcats wouldn’t be where they are right now — 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Pac-12 — without critical contributions from a handful of promising freshmen.

Michael Wiley’s emergence has helped offset injuries at running back. The development of cornerbacks Christian Roland-Wallace and Bobby Wolfe, and defensive tackle Kyon Barrs, has added much-needed depth to the defense.

“We’ve done a nice job of rotating guys,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said Monday, “giving guys experience all over the field.”

No performance by a freshman is likely to garner more headlines than quarterback Grant Gunnell’s against UCLA two Saturdays ago. In his second game and first start, Gunnell helped the Cats edge the Bruins 20-17. Winning with your backup QB is easier said than done. Just ask Cal, UCLA and USC, among others.

The work done by Gunnell’s classmates isn’t as noticeable in box scores or season-long statistics. But it’s no less significant.

Wiley has only 51 rushing yards, which ranks sixth on the team. But he has caught 11 passes for 129 yards, gives the offense flexibility and plays on most special teams. It didn’t take the Houston product long to convince the coaching staff he could help immediately.

“Michael Wiley was playing from Day 1,” Sumlin said. “He does a lot for us.”

Wiley played a crucial role in the second half of Arizona’s 35-30 victory at Colorado this past Saturday. He caught four passes for 34 yards after halftime. Three receptions produced first downs on the go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats at that point were playing without starter J.J. Taylor, who’s been nursing an injury. Redshirt freshman Bam Smith also got banged up during the game, Sumlin said.

Arizona has remained relatively healthy on defense — and has done some of its best work in the fourth quarter thanks in part to improved depth.

Roland-Wallace has started once and has played regularly. That has allowed Arizona to give occasional rest to veterans Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker — who were overworked when both were healthy in 2017 – and to shift Whittaker into the slot at times.

Roland-Wallace has seven tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. His sticky coverage on Daniel Arias forced Steven Montez to throw to his second option on the Buffaloes’ final offensive play. The pass fell incomplete on fourth down.

Roland-Wallace has played much more consistently after some early rough patches. He surrendered a touchdown in each of Arizona’s first two games.

“Physically, he’s ready to go. He has been that way since he walked on campus,” said Sumlin, whose teams hosts Washington this Saturday. “Where he’s had to grow is mentally. He struggled here at home, let a guy run right by him early in the year and didn’t understand (the situation).

“To play at a certain level all the time is probably not what some of them are used to. That’s part of maturing. That’s where he is right now.

“He’s been great, and then he’s learned the hard way in some head-scratching moments. He has to understand, hey, look, you walk out on the field, particularly as a freshman, I don’t care what you look like – they’re gonna try you. You better be ready to go all the time. That’s been part of the growth process.”

Wolfe hasn’t played as much as Roland-Wallace but has recorded four tackles and one PBU. Barrs has three stops and has become a regular in the defensive-line rotation. Arizona has outscored its past three opponents 29-3 in the fourth quarter.

Wiley, Roland-Wallace and Wolfe have appeared in all five games, meaning they can’t redshirt this season. Barrs has reached the four-game limit but is likely to continue playing.

Offensive tackle Jordan Morgan is on the precipice, having appeared in three contests. Sumlin indicated Monday that Morgan will be put on the shelf for now to preserve his redshirt – but he’ll continue to practice with the “travel squad” in case he’s needed.

Morgan, who mainly has played on special teams, has sat out the past two games.

“You haven’t seen him. That’s not because he can’t play,” Sumlin said of the Marana High School product. “If we have an emergency issue to get out of a game, Jordan Morgan’s that guy. And if it’s a serious injury, he understands he’s going to play the rest of the year.”

One other freshman to keep an eye on is Gunnell’s high school teammate, Boobie Curry. The receiver made his first career start against Colorado, catching one pass for 19 yards. He has appeared in the past two games after missing time during training camp because of injury.

“It’s been frustrating for him,” Sumlin said. “He’s wanted to play the whole time. You can see that he can have an immediate impact, just like he did with us in the spring.

“He was in the building this morning doing treatment, getting himself mentally ready to go, because he’s wanting to play a lot more.”

‘We need him’

Arizona has won its past three games without a healthy Taylor. The redshirt junior suffered what’s believed to be an ankle injury in the second quarter against Texas Tech on Sept. 14. He sat out the following game against UCLA and played only one series against Colorado.

Sumlin said Taylor didn’t suffer a setback against the Buffs, but the coaching staff didn’t want to push him “so that thing doesn’t drag on the whole year the way he plays.”

Although the other running backs have performed well, Taylor offers experience and versatility that no one else can match.

“J.J. is a patient runner,” Sumlin said. “He’s not just a one-cut runner; he can make people make. He makes our line better. Our backs are doing a nice job. But J.J. is a guy that can clean up a lot of different things when there is a missed block … or a mistake up front because of his stop and start and his change of direction. We do miss him. We need him.”

Taylor rushed for 1,434 yards last season and earned third-team All-America accolades as an all-purpose player. He has 212 yards and two touchdowns this year.

Sumlin said he was eager to see how Taylor looked at practice Monday “because we’re gonna need him to be the J.J. of last year from here on out.”

Extra points

  • Sumlin was asked how strong-armed Washington QB Jacob Eason can stress a defense. “It stresses me out,” Sumlin said. “He is an extremely talented guy. He’s bigger than you think. He’s hard to get on the ground. He can throw it a long ways. He’s a problem for us.” Eason, a transfer from Georgia, had his worst game for the Huskies last week, completing just 16 of 36 passes for 206 yards with one touchdown and one interception in UW’s 23-13 loss at Stanford.
  • Arizona QB Khalil Tate, who passed for a career-high 404 yards at Colorado, is set to face Washington for the first time in his career. He didn’t play against the Huskies as a freshman. They weren’t on Arizona’s schedule the past two seasons. “He is something else,” UW coach Chris Petersen told reporters. “He can run like nobody I’ve seen in quite a long time playing quarterback. He creates a lot of issues with his feet and has a really strong arm. He can sit on his back foot and throw it 60 yards down the field, or he can scramble around and flick it across the field.”
  • Sumlin on former protégé Kliff Kingsbury getting his first win with the Cardinals: “It was great. You always root for your friends. They’re coming on.”


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.