After Arizona’s spring game Saturday night, a reporter asked Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin to summarize his thoughts on the team’s progress following four weeks of practice. Sumlin spoke, uninterrupted, for 6 minutes, 33 seconds.
He had a lot of ground to cover.
For the most part, Sumlin and his staff accomplished their top goal of integrating a batch of newcomers, especially along the lines. Quarterback, tailback and receiver reps were dispersed among young players vying to complement established veterans. Potential stars emerged on defense.
But as Sumlin’s filibuster illustrated, Arizona has considerable work to do — and plenty of stuff to figure out — before the Aug. 24 opener at Hawaii.
As spring ball fades away and summer workouts approach, here are four critical personnel areas the Wildcats must address to be at their best against the Rainbow Warriors:
1. QBs beyond Tate
The QB rotation during the spring game suggests the coaches have a pecking order in mind, or at least the makings of one.
Senior and returning starter Khalil Tate played the first and fifth series before calling it a night. Junior Rhett Rodriguez played the second and eighth series before doing the same.
Most of the snaps went to redshirt freshmen Kevin Doyle and Jamarye Joiner and true freshman Grant Gunnell. The battle among them to push or displace Rodriguez as Tate’s backup will continue into training camp.
“They had moments, good and bad,” Sumlin said. “Some of the reads where they should’ve handed the ball, they’re trying to force the ball a little bit downfield. That comes with experience and seeing defenses. … But there’s good stuff to coach off of.”
Sumlin seemed pleased with Tate’s performance this spring. Tate did not have as significant an impact last season, his first under this coaching staff, as he did in 2017, when he went on a record-setting rampage. But Tate showed progress in the areas Sumlin most wanted to see it: playbook knowledge, leadership and dedication to his craft.
“Khalil’s gotten better,” Sumlin said. “We’re comfortable in what he’s doing.”
After acknowledging that he didn’t have the playbook down “to a T” last year, Tate said his comprehension of it is now an 11 on a scale of 1-10.
“I think that goes with me really trying to get extra help and understanding that I have to put more time in,” Tate said.
In addition to the usual offseason work with receivers, Tate said he plans to speak with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone periodically “about different concepts — really just trying to stay in football touch.” If that comes to fruition, it might be the clearest sign yet that Tate and Mazzone have fortified their relationship after an at-times bumpy Year 1.
2. Youthful receivers
UA has more receivers than any other position, and almost all of them got a shot during the 147-play scrimmage at Arizona Stadium.
But as Sumlin said afterward, the objective is to narrow it down to a two-deep rotation. That amounts to about eight players.
The only sure things among them are redshirt senior Cedric Peterson and redshirt junior Devaughn Cooper. Almost everyone else is a redshirt sophomore or younger.
Like the young quarterbacks, the young receivers produced highlights and lowlights during the spring game. Some of the latter might not have been readily evident.
“We had some young receivers in there that missed a couple signals and route structure,” Sumlin said. “But we wanted to get them out there in front of a crowd with pressure on them and have them operate.
“Some of those young guys made plays when they had the opportunity to on the perimeter. You’ve gotta be more consistent. There’s a lot on that tape for those younger players that (is) going to help us.”
The top three candidates to play the “X” receiver spot personified the unit’s overall inconsistency.
Freshman Boobie Curry had a couple of nifty sideline receptions, but didn’t seem to be on the same page with Rodriguez on a pass McKenzie Barnes intercepted. Redshirt sophomore Drew Dixon had a 27-yard reception, but was stripped at the end of it by Christian Young. Redshirt freshman Tre Adams had a 49-yard touchdown, but lost a battle for the ball with Troy Young.
Sumlin, who watched the scrimmage from behind the offense, could be heard praising Young’s effort while imploring Adams to complete the catch.
“We know what we have in a couple guys on the perimeter,” Sumlin said. “But these (younger) guys are gonna have to come on and play for us.”
3. Linemen on both sides
The junior-college linemen the Wildcats are bringing aboard are going to have to play for them as well. Three of them participated in spring practice, to varying degrees.
Offensive linemen Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears began spring with the first unit. They worked with the second team toward the end, although Fears was pressed into double duty after right tackle Edgar Burrola injured his knee during the first quarter of the spring game. Donovan played through an injured hand for much of spring ball.
Regardless of whether the newcomers start, Sumlin felt it was crucial to “get them rolling.”
“We need them to play,” Sumlin said. “They’re big, they’re athletic and they’re gonna help us.”
The third JC player who enrolled early, defensive tackle Myles Tapusoa, participated in the spring game on a limited basis. He missed the majority of spring workouts because of an undisclosed injury.
Despite playing only sparingly, the 6-1, 330-pound Tapusoa made an impact with his ability to occupy blockers. Arizona simply doesn’t have anyone else built like him.
“He’s a big dude,” Sumlin said. “It’s hard to move him around in there.”
Arizona has two more defensive tackles on the way, JC transfer Trevon Mason and incoming freshman Kane Bradford; and two more offensive linemen, Jordan Morgan and Jamari Williams. Morgan and Williams, both high school seniors, watched the spring game together from the west-side stands.
It’s clear that the Wildcats need reinforcements. They had to play defensive ends JB Brown and Justin Belknap at defensive tackle to get through spring ball, and key offensive linemen such as Donovan Laie had to play way too many snaps during the spring game with several blockers unavailable.
“I look out there (at the end of the scrimmage), and I see Belknap and a bunch of guys we are going to depend on,” Sumlin said. “Those are guys that we know can play that have helped us.
“Those guys didn’t complain. They just kept playing. That kind of attitude can go a long way for us in the fall.”
4. Return men
Sumlin mentioned more than once that Arizona has to find a reliable punt returner or two. It was a position the Wildcats didn’t have to worry about the past two seasons with Shun Brown manning that spot.
Redshirt sophomore Brian Casteel handled most of the punt returns during the spring game. The only players on the field were the snapper, the punter and Casteel.
Yet he still encountered some difficulties.
“We got a guy who put his heels on the 6 and caught a ball at the 2-inch line,” Sumlin said, referring to a punt Casteel elected to fair-catch. “That was a learning experience.
“We’re trying to develop these guys and put some of those young guys in that position. It’s better now than in the fall.”
Casteel tracked the ball well for the most part, and that’s an essential first step. He likely will face competition in training camp from classmate Stanley Berryhill III, who was limited throughout spring practice and did not participate in Saturday’s game because of an injury suffered during offseason training.
The kickoff-return unit is in good hands with veteran J.J. Taylor again assuming the lead role. Taylor was one of several tailbacks who made sparkling plays out of the backfield during the scrimmage.