Kevin Sumlin spoke to the media for almost 25 minutes Monday afternoon, and at no point did the Arizona Wildcats coach or anyone in the room specifically reference NAU.
This was not meant as an act of disrespect toward Arizona’s upcoming opponent. Rather, it was a reflection of what’s been transpiring at the UA football facility over the last week or so.
Because they had a bye after their season-opening loss at Hawaii, the Wildcats were able to spend last week working on themselves. They had plenty of repairs to make.
The Rainbow Warriors exposed the Cats’ weaknesses in front of a national-TV audience. Sumlin mentioned Arizona’s pass rush, its pass coverage and its occasional offensive inefficiency. He also reiterated the theme he’s been harping on since July: consistency.
“The things that we saw coming into that first game all pointed to, ‘Hey, we were growing up as a team,’ ” Sumlin said. “But life pays off on performance, and our performance was not very good. It was not consistent. That will still be the message. And I think our guys understand that.
“The message is … whatever you are, whoever you are, if we don’t know what we’re going to get out of you consistently, then you’re gonna hurt this football team. And then you can stand on the sideline next to me.”
Sumlin and his assistants spent much of last week examining personnel, team chemistry and possible schematic tweaks, especially on defense.
The dilemma with the pass rush — which produced minimal pressure and only one sack against Hawaii — is that Arizona also struggled in coverage. Even when the Wildcats sent only three or four defenders at the quarterback, the Rainbow Warriors found openings, mainly in the middle of the field.
“We’re going to have to change things up defensively and probably pressure some more,” Sumlin said. “But we have to cover.”
Sumlin said Hawaii provided a blueprint for how to attack Arizona’s defense, using quick passes and spreading the field with four and even five wide receivers.
The Wildcats adjusted to that by moving veteran cornerback Jace Whittaker to the slot to cover prolific receiver Cedric Byrd II. Sumlin suggested that strategy could be used in future games, especially if freshman corners Christian Roland-Wallace and Bobby Wolfe continue to develop.
“We’ve got a couple more guys that can go in the game, play corner and maybe move to a nickel or dime situation with four or five DBs on the field that can actually cover people,” Sumlin said.
On what turned out to be the winning touchdown pass for Hawaii, Arizona had Whittaker lined up across from Byrd in the right slot. But the Wildcats were playing a zone coverage, so Whittaker passed off Byrd to deeper defenders. Backup quarterback Chevan Cordeiro threaded a 30-yard throw between linebacker Colin Schooler and safety Scottie Young Jr. in the end zone.
“We weren’t very good when it came time to win the game — offensively, defensively or special teams-wise,” Sumlin said. “So there are a lot of things that we talked about last week.
“The conversations that we have are very open amongst the coaching staff, amongst our players. That’s the only way I know how to get better.”
On the long, quiet flight home from Honolulu, Sumlin happened to sit next to Young. The junior safety was despondent after recording only one tackle and surrendering several receptions in his coverage area.
“He wasn’t very happy about his performance,” Sumlin said. “I think he was embarrassed. We talked about what was going to happen this week from a leadership standpoint, from a personal standpoint, and how to get things fixed.”
Coaches worked with Young and the other safeties on adjusting their alignment and gaining a better grasp of where help defenders are situated. Known for his aggressive, instinctual play, Young looked tentative against Hawaii.
“He’s looking forward to playing this weekend,” Sumlin said. “A lot of guys on this team are looking forward to playing this weekend. Nobody in this building is real happy about what happened a week ago.”
Reid all about it
Arizona took care of another one of its top walk-ons by awarding a scholarship to special-teams standout Thomas Reid III. This one was executed a little differently.
As he’ll do on occasion, Dennis Polian, the UA’s associate athletic director for football, joined Sumlin on the field at the end of a recent practice. Usually, Polian announces players who’ve been “missing appointments” or not handling their business off the field, Sumlin said.
“When you start calling out names, they think they’re in trouble, particularly when Dennis does it,” Sumlin said. “Thomas, he doesn’t do anything wrong. The whole team knows it too. So what is going on?
“We tell him he’s on scholarship. It was crazy. He was confused at first. He just does what he’s supposed to do. His name doesn’t come up a bunch at the end of practice.”
Sumlin said Reid was “far and away” Arizona’s most productive special-teams player last season. The redshirt junior’s contributions seldom show up on the stat sheet, but they carry great value within the team.
“He’s very unselfish,” Sumlin said. “But he’s really good at what he does. And he takes a lot of pride in it.
“To reward a guy like that – who doesn’t say anything and just comes and plays football and does what you ask him to do — is a great thing.”
Arizona gave receiver Stanley Berryhill III a scholarship last summer. Center Josh McCauley got one this past spring. During training camp, Reid was asked if there had been any talk about him being next.
“Hopefully, but I’m not really counting on it,” he said. “I’m just keeping my head down and working. It’s not really something that I’m focused on right now. What I’m really focused on is this upcoming season.”
- Khalil Tate became the first Pac-12 quarterback to throw for more than 350 yards and rush for more than 100 in the same game since Arizona’s Matt Scott in 2012. “You can see the difference in him as a runner, and his confidence to run,” Sumlin said. “Everybody can see that he’s healthy. And he can be productive when he does use his legs like he did last week.”
- Sumlin said Edgar Burrola and Paiton Fears will continue to split time at right tackle. Burrola started against Hawaii, but both sophomores played 37 snaps.
- Roland-Wallace was limited during the Hawaii game by a thigh injury, Sumlin said. Roland-Wallace still played 61 snaps and performed well after yielding an early touchdown.
- The Pac-12 Networks crew for the NAU game will consist of Guy Haberman (play-by-play), Lincoln Kennedy (analyst) and Cindy Brunson (sideline).