Star reporter counts down the 11 most valuable players on the team.
Who's No. 1?
The debate is an endlessly fascinating one: What does “most valuable” mean in the context of team sports?
We’re again taking a stab at it here in our annual preseason countdown of the most valuable players on the Arizona Wildcats football team.
Are these 11 young men the 11 best players on the squad? Not necessarily.
Factors that went into this ranking include not only on-field production but leadership, versatility and indispensability. How important are these players to the team? What would happen if they were hurt for a significant chunk of time?
Since it’s nearly impossible to predict how newcomers will fare, we limited the pool of candidates to returning players and early enrollees.
Before we begin, here are the five players who barely missed the cut: S Tristan Cooper, K Lucas Havrisik, OT Donovan Laie, DT Myles Tapusoa, S Scottie Young Jr.
Onto the countdown.
No. 11: Tony Fields Jr.
No. 11: LB Tony Fields II
Height/weight/year: 6-1, 230, junior
Key 2018 stats: 89 tackles. 4.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 QB hit
Comment: Fields is as steady as they come.
Since arriving at Arizona in January 2017, he has started 25 straight games at weak-side linebacker. He has recorded at least six tackles in 18 of those contests and has reached double figures 11 times. In the brutally violent sport of football, that sort of reliability is hard to come by.
Fields actually suffered the first significant injury of his UA career last season, a banged-up shoulder against USC on Sept. 29. He failed to record a tackle for loss in that game or any of the next three. He rebounded down the stretch, compiling 3.5 TFLs, including two sacks, over the final four contests – offering a preview of what he’s capable of achieving as a junior.
Given his consistency and productivity – those 89 tackles ranked second on the team and were 33 clear of third-place Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles’ 56 – it’s fair to wonder why Fields isn’t higher on the list. There are a couple of reasons for that.
One is that Fields hasn’t made as many impact plays as he seems capable of making. He has only one interception in his career and hasn’t forced a fumble or recovered one. How much of that is a product of Arizona’s defensive system is unclear.
The second factor is that Fields has a more-than-capable backup in Anthony Pandy, who might be just as productive if he played the same number of snaps as his classmate. Pandy actually has generated TFLs at a significantly higher clip than Fields. Pandy has recorded a TFL on 16.2% of his total tackles; Fields is at 6.3%. Pandy’s rate is almost on par with that of star MLB Colin Schooler, who’s at 16.4%.
Fields has started ahead of Pandy and played the lion’s share of the snaps because he was ready from Day 1. Fields made a seamless transition from Las Vegas’ Desert Pines High School and was able to play fast right away. Pandy, meanwhile, needed a little more time to feel fully comfortable with college football.
Fields also took on a leadership role from the get-go. Whether the Wildcats won or lost – whether the defense played well or poorly – Fields regularly served as a postgame spokesman for the unit. He did that as a true freshman.
Schooler assumed much of that burden last season, which made sense given his duties as the defense’s quarterback. Those postgame media sessions are one of the rare times Schooler and Fields aren’t together. They’re virtually inseparable, and that’s another reason Fields earned a spot on this list.
The chemistry between Schooler and Fields is palpable and undoubtedly helps them perform on the field. Would Schooler be able to take as many chances as he does if he wasn’t sure Fields had his back?
Communication is critical to defensive success. Entering their third seasons as starting linebackers, Schooler and Fields have an almost telepathic connection. It’s hard to envision one without the other, just as it’s hard to picture the UA defense without Fields flying around near its epicenter.
No. 10: Jace Whittaker
No. 10: CB Jace Whittaker
Height/weight/year: 5-11, 195, redshirt senior
Key 2017 stats*: 46 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 INTs, 13 PBUs
Comment: Notice that asterisk right there? Whittaker didn’t compile any statistics last season because he barely played.
Whittaker entered what was supposed to be his final season with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two games. He returned against Southern Utah, only to suffer an elbow injury – on the first defensive series – that would sideline him the remainder of the year.
The Wildcats weren’t better off without Whittaker.
Without its soundest, most seasoned cornerback, Arizona experienced upheaval at the position. The UA used six starting combinations at the two cornerback spots, including four in the final five games. The fill-ins included a graduate transfer who parted ways with the team in midseason (Tim Hough), a freshman safety (Christian Young) and a walk-on who’s no longer on the roster (Azizi Hearn).
Without Whittaker playing alongside him and stabilizing the secondary, returning starter Lorenzo Burns’ play suffered. Burns had 81 tackles and five interceptions in 13 games in 2017. Last year he had 39 tackles and no picks in 10 games.
So it was a significant development when UA coach Kevin Sumlin confirmed in December that Whittaker would be returning for a fifth season. He hadn’t previously used a redshirt year. It was like adding a recruit – with extensive experience – to the 2019 class.
Given how valuable Whittaker seems to be, you might be wondering why he isn’t higher on our list. The main reason is that Arizona appears to be in much better shape at the position.
Sophomore McKenzie Barnes was one of the standout performers of spring practice, culminating with a two-interception outing in the spring game. Barnes got “a little worn down” late last season, according to Sumlin, but seems to be in a better place physically and mentally entering Year 2.
The most buzzed-about player in spring was freshman cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace. Roland-Wallace couldn’t play in the spring game because of a hamstring injury but made quite an impression in previous practices. Assuming he stays healthy, Roland-Wallace appears to be a lock for a spot in the corner rotation and a sizable role on special teams.
Incoming freshman Bobby Wolfe, meanwhile, was one of Arizona’s highest-ranked recruits, earning a four-star rating from 247Sports.
If all of those young players pan out, or even two of three, the Wildcats will have better cornerback depth than they’ve had in years. They’ll be able to withstand an injury to Whittaker or Burns.
Of course, Whittaker offers at least one thing none of the underclassmen can: experience. He’s also, pound for pound, one of the toughest guys on the team. And he might have the highest football IQ of any Arizona defender.
The Wildcats missed Whittaker’s presence as much as his production last season. He just makes everything fit right.
With Whittaker in the fold, Burns doesn’t have to bear the burden of being the No. 1 cornerback. The young corners can ease their way into the lineup.
None of that was possible last season. Sometimes you don’t appreciate a player’s value until he’s unavailable.
No. 9: Finton Connolly
No. 9: DT Finton Connolly
Height/weight/year: 6-5, 305, redshirt senior
Key 2018 stats: 13 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 PBU
Comment: Connolly never has been more important to the Wildcats than he is today.
He is the only defensive tackle on the roster who has any substantial Division I experience as a defensive tackle.
Arizona enters 2019 having to replace both of its starting interior linemen, PJ Johnson and Dereck Boles. Connolly contributed as a member of the rotation last season, starting four times. He now will be tasked with leading the group.
The Gilbert product should be positioned to make his last season his best. When he redshirted as a freshman in 2015, the 6-5 Connolly weighed 251 pounds. He’s now listed at 305. He’s bigger, stronger and wiser.
Connolly has ideal measurables to play in the trenches in Marcel Yates’ scheme, where occupying blockers to keep the linebackers clean is among the defensive tackles’ primary responsibilities. Connolly also has shown a knack for making plays when given the chance, compiling nine tackles for losses, including 3.5 sacks, over the past three seasons.
The main challenge for Connolly in his fifth year is to show he can play that way consistently, not just in spurts. He’ll be given every opportunity to prove he’s capable of handling a heavier load.
Connolly should start at one of the two inside spots, with junior-college transfer Myles Tapusoa the favorite to open at the other. At 6-1, 330, Tapusoa possesses the bulk Arizona lost when Johnson elected to enter the 2019 NFL draft. (He was a seventh-round pick.)
Tapusoa flashed impressive strength and footwork early in spring practice, then missed considerable time because of an undisclosed injury. He returned to participate in the spring game, an encouraging sign for a player who, like Connolly, will be counted on to play a sizable role in 2019.
Two other returning players who could factor into the rotation are redshirt junior Jalen Cochran and redshirt freshman Nahe Sulunga. Cochran moved from defensive end to tackle in the spring. Yates sees Cochran – who’s listed at 6-3, 270 but might be closer to 6-4, 280 – as a prototypical “3-technique.” That might be the case, but Cochran must prove he can stay healthy after being plagued by injuries during his first three seasons.
Sulunga was considered a defensive end coming out of Calabasas (Calif.) High School. He made cameos in three games last season, preserving his redshirt, and UA coach Kevin Sumlin dubbed him a “wild card” during spring ball.
The problem is, Sulunga is undersized at 6-2, 265. He’s built similarly to 6-3, 258-pound JB Brown, who also moved inside at times during spring practice. The coaches would like to utilize him there this season, but only when they want to, not because they have to.
Arizona has two more defensive tackles, Kane Bradford and Trevon Mason, in its 2019 class. However, they were not yet enrolled as of this writing. The hope is that both will be on campus by the start of the second academic summer session on July 15. Training camp begins 11 days later.
Every candidate to play defensive tackle carries question marks into the 2019 season. Connolly has the fewest. His past production might not merit a spot in our top 11, but his projected role undoubtedly does.
No. 8: Cody Creason
No. 8: OL Cody Creason
Height/weight/year: 6-4, 295, redshirt senior
Key 2018 stats: N/A
Comment: Against all odds, the UA offensive line turned out to be a team strength last season. It should be again this year. Creason is the veteran leader of that unit.
Arizona has eight redshirt seniors on its roster. Creason is the lone offensive lineman among them. He has played multiple positions for multiple coaches and has thrived regardless of the circumstances.
Creason’s reliability, experience and versatility are what make him one of the Wildcats’ most valuable assets. You could plug him in at any of four offensive line positions – center being the exception, although he probably could wing it – and not have to worry about him missing an assignment or whiffing on a block.
Creason has appeared in 37 games in his UA career, making 19 starts. Ten of those starts have come at left guard, his primary position last season. The other nine have come at right tackle.
With Kyle DeVan taking over the line and some new personnel arriving, roles shifted in the spring. Creason spent most of his time playing right guard. Since left guard was a new experience for him – he hadn’t played inside previously – right guard surely was too. He just went about his business as if he’d been playing there his whole life.
Although the Wildcats have the makings of an impressive starting unit, the depth still isn’t where Kevin Sumlin would like it to be. Having someone like Creason who could kick outside or flip to the other side of the line at a moment’s notice gives Arizona an insurance policy of sorts.
Based on the way they lined up in spring, center Josh McCauley is the only blocker slated to play the same position as a year ago. Creason, as mentioned, shifted from the left side to the right. Rising sophomore Donovan Laie went the other way, moving to left tackle after primarily playing right tackle as a freshman. The other projected starters are junior-college transfers Josh Donovan (left guard) and Paiton Fears (right tackle). It’s nice to have a senior who’s seen it all to help bring the group together.
Creason is playing for his third line coach in as many years – four if you include the brief tenure of Garin Justice, who was part of the UA staff for about a month before Rich Rodriguez was fired. Creason came to Arizona to play for Jim Michalczik, made the move to guard under Joe Gilbert and will finish his college career under DeVan, who has drawn rave reviews so far. Whether in the trenches or in media interviews, Creason never has seemed fazed by any of it.
The work of Creason and his linemates is best illustrated by Arizona’s rushing totals. The Wildcats led the Pac-12 in yards per game (202.4) and average per carry (4.9) last season, despite a plethora of injuries and a dearth of experience up front. They’ve held those belts for three straight years. Arizona also has ranked in the top 35 nationally in sacks allowed per game each of the past two seasons.
No one personifies the line’s blue-collar ethos more than Creason. There’s nothing flashy about him. He just gets the job done, no matter the assignment.
No. 7: Cedric Peterson
No. 7: WR Cedric Peterson
Height/weight/year: 5-11, 195, redshirt senior
Key 2018 stats: 18 receptions, 268 yards, 14.9-yard average/catch, 4 TDs
Comment: Peterson is the last man standing.
Arizona has 12 scholarship wide receivers. Peterson is the only one who has started a game for the Wildcats.
Five UA receivers caught 18 or more passes last season. Peterson is the only one left.
Peterson played a supporting role in 2018, when he notched career bests in catches, yards and touchdowns. Now he has top billing at a position lacking in experience but teeming with youthful talent.
Before we explore how Peterson might contribute to the 2019 squad, let’s quickly review how we got here.
Last year’s top three receivers – Shun Brown, Tony Ellison and Shawn Poindexter – were redshirt seniors. They combined for 135 receptions, 1,939 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Peterson and Devaughn Cooper seemed best positioned to step into that void, but Cooper – who matched Peterson’s 18 receptions in '18 – lost his roster spot in May because of a violation of athletic-department policy.
That left only two receivers – Peterson and Stanley Berryhill III – with more than one career reception. Berryhill, who hauled in 14 passes last season, should play a significant role as a slot receiver. But the redshirt sophomore is still a pup compared to Peterson. Berryhill also missed spring practice because of an offseason injury.
Peterson, meanwhile, used spring ball to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the receiver group.
“I had a lot of older dudes that set the standard higher for me, made sure that I was right,” he said in March. “My role now is to make sure … that we’re all on the same page — we’re all doing things that we’re supposed to do, on and off the field. Showing up on time for meetings, getting extra work in.”
Peterson brings a blue-collar mentality to a position that has produced more than its share of divas. He is a willing blocker who never complained when others had more passes come their way.
Peterson set career bests with four catches and 63 yards in an otherwise miserable loss at Utah last October. He then posted a career-high 72 yards three weeks later in a win against Colorado – including a career-long 57-yard catch-and-run.
Peterson caught the ball at the CU 46, spun away from a defender and outraced multiple Buffaloes to the end zone. The play had UA followers reconsidering Peterson’s potential: Maybe he could become something more than a possession receiver?
Peterson probably doesn’t have as high a ceiling as some of the other wideouts. He isn’t as big as Tre Adams (6-3, 195), Boobie Curry (6-2, 206), Drew Dixon (6-3, 215), Thomas Marcus Jr. (6-2, 2-5) or Zach Williams (6-3, 215). Peterson isn’t as twitchy as Berryhill or Jaden Mitchell.
But Peterson easily has the highest floor of any returning or incoming wideout. He’s smart and sure-handed. He’s going to execute his assignments. When Arizona absolutely has to convert on third down, it’s easy to envision Peterson being Khalil Tate’s most trusted outlet.
Speaking of Tate, he and Peterson apparently have a connection off the field – a relationship that should enhance their chemistry on it. Aside from his own self-improvement to-do list, one of the biggest tasks Tate faces this season is operating the offense efficiently with an almost entirely new receiving corps.
Peterson’s proficiency and professionalism should prove invaluable in that endeavor.
No. 6: Josh McCauley
No. 6: C Josh McCauley
Height/weight/year: 6-3, 292, redshirt junior
Key 2018 stats: N/A
Comment: A year ago at this time, McCauley was a walk-on and a contingency plan. If none of the other options panned out, well, McCauley might have to be Arizona’s starting center.
Today, McCauley’s on scholarship, and he’s among the half-dozen most valuable players on the 2019 Wildcats.
What a rise. What a story.
It’s hard to imagine the UA offensive line without McCauley as its fulcrum. He ended up starting every game last season. He played almost every snap. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone dubbed McCauley Arizona’s “iron man.” He has become indispensable.
“Josh is one of those (players), you don’t notice how much help he is, or how good he is for you, unless you don’t have him,” Mazzone said in spring. “He was always there for us, and he’s done a great job.”
McCauley was the only UA offensive lineman to start every game at the same position last season. He’s the only O-lineman projected to start at the same spot this year as last year. The stability McCauley has provided is vital – especially since he plays the position that starts every offensive play.
(Not to jinx the guy, but can you remember more than a couple of wayward shotgun snaps last season?)
After anchoring the line for a full season and going head to head with future first-round pick Ed Oliver, among others, McCauley finally – at the end of spring practice – received the reward he clearly deserved. In a team meeting before the spring game, UA coach Kevin Sumlin announced that McCauley would be put on scholarship.
As always happens in these moments, the room exploded. Players jumped out of their seats and mobbed McCauley in the corner of the meeting room.
As the camera zoomed in on McCauley, you could see the emotion on his face. It clearly meant the world to him.
If he was frustrated about the scholarship situation earlier in spring, McCauley didn’t show it. When asked about it, he played it cool, saying: “That’s always the goal. I’m trying to get through spring ball and see where it goes from there. I’m just here to do my job.”
That message was consistent with the sentiment McCauley expressed during the season, when he said simply: “I came here to play football.”
McCauley graduated from Mesa Red Mountain High School, where he also played basketball and threw the shotput and discus for the track-and-field team. He had no scholarship offers from Division I schools but believed in himself and decided to come to Arizona as a preferred walk-on.
McCauley redshirted in 2016 and appeared in three games as a backup in ’17. In the spring and summer of ’18, a real opportunity arose. McCauley took advantage of it.
Projected starting center Nathan Eldridge had knee issues and couldn’t stay on the practice field. (He subsequently transferred to Oregon State.) Sumlin brought in Robert Congel from Texas A&M, but he had to sit out the ’18 season as a transfer.
McCauley became the starter. He struggled a bit early in the year, especially against defensive tackles who were bigger and stronger than he was. He eventually found his footing and helped the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the third straight season.
As the center, McCauley also must relay calls to the rest of the line and work in concert with the quarterback to make sure the protection scheme is sound. It’s a lot of responsibility. McCauley handled it well.
You’d expect him to handle his newfound status as a scholarship player with the same professionalism. He won’t be any less motivated to do his job.
No. 5 Jalen Harris
No. 5: DE Jalen Harris
Height/weight/year: 6-4, 242, redshirt sophomore
Key 2018 stats: 27 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 sacks, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble
Comment: This is about upside and the impact Harris could have if he starts to realize his potential.
If he puts it all together, Harris is capable of reaching double-digit sacks. He might be the only player on the team who could hit that mark. No one on last year’s squad had more than 3.5.
And man, does Arizona need somebody like that. The UA defense struggled for a variety of reasons last season. The lack of a consistent pass rush – especially in third-down situations – was one of them.
The Wildcats ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with 23 sacks last season. Their average of 1.92 per game was down from 2.38 the previous season. The top pass-rushing defenses in the league average about three sacks per game.
Arizona’s takeaways also were down. They had 25 in 13 games in 2017. Last year? Just 15 in 12 games. That drop-off didn’t happen by coincidence.
Arizona ranked last in the Pac-12 in pass defense, surrendering 269.5 yards per contest. Injuries at cornerback were a problem. A more forceful pass rush could have offset them.
It’s worth noting at this point that Harris didn’t become a starter until the final four games. He rotated with classmate Kylan Wilborn, who had 7.5 sacks as a freshman before enduring a sophomore slump last season. Wilborn remains part of Arizona’s plans, and there’s legitimate hope he can rediscover his rookie form.
But neither Wilborn nor any other edge rusher on the roster possesses Harris’ combination of length and quickness. He can use his long arms to get his hands on offensive linemen before they can get their hands on him. Or he can fly off the edge and beat them to the spot.
All of the above was on display during the spring game. Harris was the most disruptive player on the field, unofficially recording two sacks, an additional tackle for loss and a pair of quarterback pressures.
“If he continues to get stronger and stay in the 245- to 250-pound range, he’s got a really, really bright future,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said afterward. “He brings edge pressure with length. He also showed today playing the run from sideline to sideline. There were a couple times we just couldn’t block him.”
Adding strength and bulk always has been Harris’ biggest challenge. His listed weight as a freshman was 212 pounds. He still was good enough to earn playing time, appearing in four games before getting hurt (and preserving his redshirt).
Harris was up to 242 pounds this spring, and he said he’d like to play at 250 this season. He’ll need to be as sturdy as possible, because more will be asked of him by the Wildcats – and more attention will be paid to him by opponents.
Wilborn found out what that was like last season. Offensive coordinators knew who he was and schemed accordingly.
Harris’ profile isn’t that high yet. But if he blows up the way Sumlin and other expect him to early in the season, Pac-12 coaches will be ready for him come conference play.
Which would be a good problem to have. If Harris is able to draw disproportionate attention, it’ll open things up for the likes of Wilborn and JB Brown, another promising third-year pass rusher.
Harris hasn’t produced at the level of some of the other players in our countdown. But the opportunities are coming. The talent is there. Quarterbacks beware.
No. 4: JB Brown
No. 4: DL JB Brown
Height/weight/year: 6-3, 258, junior
Key 2018 stats: 30 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Comment: Brown probably would have made this list even if two things hadn’t happened this spring that elevated his stock.
One, he was the go-to answer when players and coaches were asked which veteran had taken his game up a notch since the end of last season. Two, Brown took reps at a new spot – defensive tackle – after playing end exclusively in 2018.
The possibility of Brown becoming a significant contributor at two positions – one of which is in desperate need of reinforcements – vaulted him into the top four in our countdown.
Brown became a starter last year when Justin Belknap suffered a broken foot leading into the Week 3 game against Southern Utah. Brown started eight of the remaining 10 games, including the final six. It took him about half a season to hit his stride – which wasn’t surprising since Brown was new to starting and still relatively new to defensive end. (He came to Arizona from Southern California powerhouse Long Beach Poly as a middle linebacker.)
Brown accumulated all of his tackles for losses, all of his sacks and his lone forced fumble over the final seven games. Project those numbers over a 13-game campaign (we’re giving Arizona a bowl bid in this scenario), and they come out to 14 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. That’s a pretty darn good season.
Brown isn’t as long as bookend Jalen Harris. But Brown is stronger and has a motor that never stops revving.
“He’s high energy,” Harris said in spring. “Every day he shows up ready to work.”
Brown’s most natural position is probable strong-side defensive end. So why did the coaching staff give him looks at defensive tackle during spring? And what are the possible benefits of that?
Part of it sprung from necessity. Arizona simply didn’t have enough bodies to go three-deep at the two interior defensive line positions.
But the more Brown played there, the more it made strategic sense. His quick hands and feet became an asset against less athletic guards and centers.
Although the Wildcats have added depth to their front in the form of late signee Kyon Barrs – and hope to add two more big bodies in Kane Bradford and Trevon Mason, who are still working to get enrolled – it seems like a lock that Brown will see time at defensive tackle. The question is how much.
Playing a 258-pounder full time, or close to it, at one of those interior positions might not be the wisest course of action. The UA defense has struggled in recent seasons when it had to use undersized tackles. Kevin Sumlin has targeted bigger athletes in recruiting, including junior-college transfers such as Mason (6-5, 280) and Myles Tapusoa (6-1, 330).
Could Brown become a poor man’s version of Ed Oliver, who disrupted opposing offenses for three seasons at Houston at about 6-1, 280 pounds? Maybe. But the best way to use Brown inside might be in the Michael Bennett mold.
Bennett is a defensive end by trade, but the Seattle Seahawks turned him into a game wrecker by shifting him inside in obvious passing situations. Arizona used Brown and Belknap inside during the spring game. An all-end front of Harris, Brown, Belknap and Kylan Wilborn has the potential to wreak havoc in long-yardage scenarios.
Whether he plays tackle a lot or a little, Brown’s versatility boosts his value. He displayed his playmaking chops last season. The coaching staff seems determined to put him in position to make even more this year.
No. 3: J.J. Taylor
No. 3: RB J.J. Taylor
Height/weight/year: 5-6, 184, redshirt junior
Key 2018 stats: 1,434 rushing yards, 5.6 yards/carry, 6 TDs; 16 catches, 133 yards, 8.3 yards/catch; 24.5-yard KOR avg., 1 TD
Comment: Sometimes a player carries so much value that it doesn’t matter how good the depth is behind him – he’d still be missed if lost for any substantial length of time.
Taylor is one of those players.
No position on the current UA roster is deeper than tailback. Arizona has at least three viable options at the position and maybe as many as five.
Could the Wildcats survive a long-term injury to Taylor? Probably. Top backup Gary Brightwell could start for a lot of Division I schools. Bam Smith looked terrific in limited duty as a freshman and appears poised for a bigger role. And former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford remains a tantalizing talent.
None, at least individually, offers the total package Taylor provides.
Just listen to what teammate Rhett Rodriguez had to say about Taylor in a recent interview. Rodriguez was asked to name a player who has stood out in offseason workouts.
“J.J. Taylor is just the epitome of a perfect leader, a perfect competitor,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen a lot of really good football players, and he might be the most athletically gifted. But he works on it.
“For our break in May, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was (going to be) gone for a couple days, then he was coming back and working out. He’s taken this offseason really seriously. He’s somehow getting better and faster, which I didn’t even think was possible.”
Taylor had an excellent season in 2018. His 1,434 rushing yards were the fourth most in a single season in UA history. He ranked second among all FBS players with 175.6 all-purpose yards per game.
But it wasn’t a perfect season. Taylor was charged with seven fumbles, five of which were lost. They seemed to come at the most inopportune moments – just beyond the goal line negating a would-be touchdown against UCLA; late in the fourth quarter of a come-from-ahead loss to Arizona State.
In typical Taylor fashion, though, he immediately went to work to fix the problem. New running backs coach DeMarco Murray has a simple mantra when it comes to his charges and their responsibilities: “Protect the ball, protect the quarterback.” Taylor took the former to heart throughout spring. The latter never has been a problem for Arizona’s best blitz-reading, pass-protecting back.
Taylor also is a skilled receiver – although still underutilized in that area – and a dangerous kickoff returner. Remember: He made third-team All-American last season as an all-purpose player.
Arizona added junior-college transfer Tayvian Cunningham – who returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in two seasons at Sacramento City College – in the offseason. He’ll undoubtedly get looks as a kickoff returner. With the Wildcats having emerged from spring without a clear successor to Shun Brown on punt returns, Taylor could get a look there. There’s little doubt he could handle it.
Although a man of few words off the field – not that there’s anything wrong with that – Taylor also ranks among Arizona’s top leaders. No one sets a better example in terms of attitude, effort, professionalism and work ethic. Maybe it’s Taylor’s way of compensating for his lack of height. Maybe it’s just the way he is.
Taylor will be a senior academically this season, and it isn’t inconceivable this will be his final year as a Wildcat. Assuming he has another productive campaign with around 300 touches, he wouldn’t stand to gain much from coming back in 2020. If anything, putting more mileage on his body could hurt his NFL stock.
So enjoy Taylor while he’s here, Wildcat fans. You might miss him more than you think when that’s no longer the case.
No. 2: Khalil Tate
No. 2: QB Khalil Tate
Height/weight/year: 6-2, 215, senior
Key 2018 stats: 170 of 302 passing (56.3 percent), 2,530 yards, 26 TDs, 8 INTs, 149.8 rating; 224 rushing yards, 3.0 yards/carry, 2 TDs
Comment: Warts and all, Tate is the best option to play quarterback for the 2019 Wildcats. If he can find a happy medium between the 2017 and ’18 versions of himself, Arizona could exceed expectations – which generally have the Cats at about .500.
No other UA player’s performance carries such weight – and it’s not just because of the position Tate plays. We’ve seen what he’s capable of when he’s fully healthy and completely engaged. For a solid month – October 2017 – he was the best player in the Pac-12 and possibly all of America. He had at least one run of 54-plus yards in six consecutive games. He was a terror. And he was only a sophomore.
Arizona changed coaches the following offseason, and expectations for Tate soared. Kevin Sumlin had coached Johnny Manziel. Noel Mazzone had a dense résumé as a quarterback guru. If Tate didn’t finish in the top five for the Heisman Trophy, something had to be amiss.
Even at his best, Tate never quite looked like the same player as the previous season. The ankle he hurt in Week 2 was undoubtedly a factor, but it wasn’t the only issue. In the process of trying to do what he thought his coaches wanted – or of trying to become the type of quarterback he thought he should be – Tate drifted from what made him great.
In 2017, he had a killer instinct. In 2018, he looked uncertain.
In 2017, he was a true dual threat. In 2018, he often was reluctant to run.
So now what?
Tate said all the right things in spring. He expressed frustration about last season, especially the ankle injury that nagged him for weeks. He conceded that the hype became too much to handle at times. And he vowed to be better, in all phases, in his final season at Arizona.
There are reasons to believe he will be. Tate has had a full season and another offseason to learn Mazzone’s system. Tate also is back to being an underdog. His desire to become something more than a backup unquestionably fueled him in 2017. Last year he was “The Man” – even getting credit, to some degree, for Arizona hiring Sumlin instead of Ken Niumatalolo.
Although he played well at times – a 26-8 TD-INT ratio is nothing to scoff at – Tate failed to lead the Wildcats to a winning record. The way last season ended – with Tate playing a key role in a blown fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State – had to leave him feeling dissatisfied. It ought to make him hungry. That’s a good thing for the UA.
Arizona doesn’t need the 2017 version of Tate to contend in the Pac-12 South and make a bowl game. It does need him to play with a sense of urgency on every down, every week.
If the coaches had lost any faith in him, it wasn’t evident in the spring game. Tate started but played only two series and threw only one pass. Sumlin and Mazzone didn’t need to see anymore. They know who their starter is.
Most of the work went to younger quarterbacks. Kevin Doyle, Grant Gunnell and Jamarye Joiner combined for 54 of Arizona’s 73 passing attempts in the scrimmage.
Gunnell, a freshman, seems like the quarterback of the future. Doyle, a redshirt freshman, continues to compete hard for that title. Joiner, also a redshirt freshman, is getting looks at other positions, including wide receiver. Junior Rhett Rodriguez remains the favorite to begin the season as Tate’s short-term backup.
None appears ready to legitimately push Tate, let alone overtake him. Maybe that will change in training camp, which begins later this month. But the fact that Tate is representing Arizona at Pac-12 Media Day on July 24 is telling: Sumlin is willing to bet on Tate, even after Year 1 didn’t go precisely as planned.
The Wildcats will have a strong running game to support their quarterback. They have the makings of a sturdy offensive line. Their defense has intriguing pieces at every level.
Arizona also has question marks at receiver and defensive tackle.
If he’s right, Tate can help mask those deficiencies. He can be the difference between 6-6 and 8-4 – between another mediocre season and a special one.
No. 1: Colin Schooler
No. 1: LB Colin Schooler
Height/weight/year: 6-0, 236, junior
Key 2018 stats: 119 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 4 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 safety
Comment: Schooler is the quarterback of the defense and the most indispensable Wildcat on either side of the ball.
He makes calls. He makes plays. Win or lose, he represents the program with integrity.
One might argue that the defense hasn’t exactly lit it up during Schooler’s time in Tucson, finishing 10th in the Pac-12 in yards allowed each of the past two seasons; therefore, the thinking goes, an offensive player ought to be the team MVP.
Well, can you imagine the defense without its leader in tackles, tackles for losses and sacks – who also happened to rank second in interceptions and fourth in pass breakups? It isn’t a stretch to say a Schooler-less UA defense would be the worst in the Pac-12 by a long shot.
UA fans caught a glimpse of that alternate reality in a way in last year’s painful season finale against Arizona State. Schooler played despite batting the flu. He lost about 12 pounds during the week and needed four IV bags.
Not surprisingly, Schooler didn’t look like himself. His five tackles tied a season low. It was one of only two games in which he didn’t record a TFL. (The Utah game, in which just about every Wildcat struggled, was the other in both categories. Schooler had at least nine stops in his 10 other appearances.)
Schooler was determined to gut his way through it, and his off game wasn’t particularly noticeable as Arizona took a 40-21 lead late in the third quarter. But you knew something was askew when Schooler let ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins wriggle free for a 13-yard run on fourth-and-8 on the final play of the period. The Sun Devils’ fourth-quarter comeback probably doesn’t happen if the Wildcats stop him there.
The coaches made a move this spring to give Schooler some support and relief, which he needs. They shifted second-year safety Day Day Coleman from safety to “Mike” linebacker. In spring, Schooler seemed to enjoy having an apprentice, especially one who approaches the game with the same seriousness he does.
Schooler and his running mate, Tony Fields II, undoubtedly would benefit from getting a breather every now and then. The coaches didn’t feel as if they had a healthy alternative they truly could trust behind Schooler last season. Perhaps Coleman will be that guy.
The tough part is, it’s really hard to take Schooler off the field. Not only has he grown as a leader – an ongoing process, as Schooler readily acknowledged in spring – he has improved as a player. Those 21.5 TFLs were eight more than Schooler had the previous season. He doubled his total passes defensed, from three to six.
Schooler just has a knack for being around the ball, not unlike the player he often is compared to, Scooby Wright. Wright left Arizona after his junior year. It’s conceivable Schooler could do the same, especially if his game takes another jump.
Even if it does, Schooler is unlikely to post numbers like the ones Wright did as a sophomore in 2014. That was an all-timer.
But Schooler might be a superior NFL prospect. He plays better “in space” – an essential trait for modern-day, off-the-ball linebackers – and should test better in drills.
That’s a conversation for a later date, though. Schooler’s junior season is still in front of him. Wright’s was undone by injuries. Arizona’s defense wasn’t close to the same without its top playmaker.
Even with a backup plan in place, the 2019 Wildcats don’t want to find out what life is like without Schooler.