Kevin Sumlin entered a meeting room at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility at noon Monday with a smile on his face and a depth chart at his disposal.
The second-year Arizona coach has reason to feel good about the Wildcats’ two-deep entering Saturday’s opener at Hawaii. The offensive line has more experience. The defensive line has more depth. The secondary has more available, healthy bodies.
“There’s just more stability right now,” Sumlin said. “It’s just a completely different football team.”
Sumlin conceded that he isn’t sure whether all the offseason progress and positive vibes will translate into success on Saturdays. But he feels better about several positions and the overall roster than he did a year ago.
Here’s a breakdown of the depth chart, which was released Monday morning:
Starter: Khalil Tate
Listed backups: Rhett Rodriguez, Grant Gunnell
Comment: It’s mildly surprising that there’s no “or” between Rodriguez and Gunnell, but not entirely unexpected.
Gunnell enrolled in January and showed a lot of promise in training camp. But Rodriguez, a junior, is a more proven commodity than the big freshman from Texas.
“One guy’s got more experience than the other guy,” Sumlin said. “(One) guy’s been here since January; (one) guy’s been here before I got here. … Grant’s coming along fine.”
In all likelihood, Rodriguez would get the nod if Tate had to come out for a play or a series. If a long-term change were necessary, Gunnell probably would merit serious consideration.
Starter: J.J. Taylor
Listed backups: Gary Brightwell, Bam Smith, Nathan Tilford, Michael Wiley
Comment: Brightwell enters the season as Taylor’s No. 2. The battle for the No. 3 spot is ongoing.
Smith, Tilford and Wiley all made the depth chart with the “or” designation, an indication that they’re on equal footing, or close to it. Arizona has no shortage of options at this position. The hard part will be finding touches for everyone.
Starters: Drew Dixon/Boobie Curry, Brian Casteel/Jamarye Joiner, Cedric Peterson
Listed backups: Tre Adams, Tayvian Cunningham, Jaden Mitchell, Stanley Berryhill III, Thomas Reid III
Comment: Dixon and Curry are listed as co-starters at the outside receiver spot opposite Peterson. Dixon was expected to be there. Curry was less certain, especially after missing some time in training camp. But Gunnell’s high school teammate flashed in spring, has excellent size (6-2, 207) and is just too talented to keep on the bench.
Casteel and Joiner are listed as co-starters at slot receiver, but they will be on the field at the same time when Arizona goes to four-wide sets. Joiner switched from quarterback to receiver during the offseason and made a rapid rise up the depth chart. He impressed Sumlin with his athleticism, size (6-1, 205) and hand-eye coordination.
Starter: Bryce Wolma
Listed backup: Zach Williams
Comment: Williams is listed as a wide receiver on the roster; at 6-2, 216, he lacks the bulk to be a true in-line tight end. Insider receivers coach Theron Aych called Williams a “hybrid.”
It’s somewhat surprising that his classmate, Jake Peters, didn’t sneak onto the depth chart. Peters has a more traditional tight end physique (6-4, 235).
Starters: Donovan Laie, Robert Congel, Josh McCauley, Cody Creason, Edgar Burrola/Paiton Fears
Listed backups: Jordan Morgan, Josh Donovan, Steven Bailey, Bryson Cain
Comment: As Sumlin noted, Arizona entered last year’s opener with one returning starter available and a walk-on center. The Wildcats enter this year with three returning starters, including that center, McCauley, whose stellar play earned him a scholarship.
“So you’ve gotta feel better about where you’re at right now,” Sumlin said.
Congel edged Donovan for the starting nod at left guard, an impressive accomplishment for the transfer from Texas A&M who had to sit out last season. Burrola and Fears are listed as co-starters at right tackle. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both get snaps.
Morgan’s inclusion in the two-deep is a promising sign for his future. The Marana product probably needs to add more muscle (6-5, 287), but he has the athleticism and footwork to start sooner than later.
Starters: JB Brown, Myles Tapusoa, Trevon Mason, Jalen Harris
Listed backups: Kylan Wilborn, Finton Connolly, Mykee Irving, Justin Belknap
Comment: These units match the Star’s projections from last week. The progress made by Tapusoa and Mason, a pair of junior-college transfers, enabled Brown to move back to his natural position of defensive end.
“They’re in better shape right now,” Sumlin said of Tapusoa and Mason. “I don’t think Myles could make it through warmups last spring. You guys kept looking for him: ‘Where is he?’ Shoot, he’s tired.”
Tapusoa spent much of spring working on his conditioning. Mason arrived in late July and had to be eased into training camp.
“As many times as Hawaii throws the ball, we’ll see what kind of shape he’s in Saturday night,” Sumlin said. “It’s been a while for him.”
As Sumlin observed, the second team features players who “started a bunch of games last year.” Wilborn, Connolly and Belknap have 49 combined career starts.
Starters: Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II/Anthony Pandy
Listed backup: Day Day Coleman
Comment: Fields has started every game – 25 straight – since becoming a Wildcat in 2017. But Pandy has come on in a big way.
“There was unbelievable competition between he and Tony Fields, which has been healthy for our football team,” Sumlin said. “Those guys have really worked at it. They both want to start.”
Regardless of who starts at “Will,” Sumlin implied that Schooler, Fields and Pandy would form a three-man rotation at the two LB spots. Sumlin reiterated the need to reduce Schooler’s workload, saying “it wasn’t a coincidence” that Schooler suffered from the flu at the end of last season.
Sumlin praised the growth of Coleman and freshman Derrion Clark, saying both would contribute significantly on special teams.
Starters: Jace Whittaker, Lorenzo Burns
Listed backups: Christian Roland-Wallace, Samari Springs
Comment: Springs has been one of the biggest surprises of preseason camp. A transfer from Richmond, where he primarily played safety, the son of Shawn Springs has displayed natural footwork and movement skills to play corner.
It’s a bit surprising that sophomore McKenzie Barnes didn’t make the initial depth chart. Barnes had two interceptions in the spring game. However, he missed a sizable chunk of training camp because of injury.
No position was hit harder by injuries last season than cornerback. Whittaker missed all but one series. Burns missed two games. Arizona had six different starting combinations.
Starters: Tristan Cooper, Christian Young, Scottie Young Jr.
Listed backups: Xavier Bell, Jaxen Turner, Troy Young, Chaco Ulloa, Jarrius Wallace
Comment: This position lined up as expected. It’s a good sign for freshman Turner to have made the depth chart, even if only as the No. 3 “Spur.” Troy Young, who played cornerback last season, is listed as the second-string “Bandit” ahead of Ulloa, who missed time in camp because of injury.
Starters: Lucas Havrisik (PK), Matt Aragon (P/H), Donald Reiter (LS), Casteel/Berryhill III (PR), Taylor (KR)
Listed backups: Nathan Halsell (PK), Kyle Ostendorp (P), Rodriguez (H), Seth MacKellar (LS), Brightwell (KR), Joiner (KR), Roland-Wallace (KR)
Comment: As expected, all the veteran specialists held off the newcomers. The interesting position to monitor is punt returner, where Casteel and Berryhill (and possibly others) are vying to replace Shun Brown.
- The late Dick Tomey, who coached at Hawaii and Arizona, will be honored before Saturday’s game. The Wildcats will wear “DT” stickers on their helmets. Arizona will have additional tributes to Tomey during the home opener vs. NAU (Sept. 7) and the homecoming game vs. Oregon State (Nov. 2).
- Sumlin on Hawaii QB Cole McDonald, who passed for 3,875 yards and 36 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore last season: “He’s a big, tough guy. You see him get hit sometimes, it doesn’t faze him. He’s gonna get up and keep going. … They’ve got some weapons (at other positions), but they’ve got a quarterback that’s as good as probably there is in the country.”
- Former Arizona defensive end My-King Johnson tweeted that he’ll be playing this season for New Mexico Military Institute, a junior college. Former UA receiver Thomas Marcus Jr. announced that he’s transferring to Montana State.
- The announcers for the CBS Sports Network broadcast of Arizona-Hawaii are Carter Blackburn (play-by-play), Aaron Taylor (analyst), Rick Neuheisel (analyst) and Jenny Dell (sideline).