Editor’s note: Over the next five days, the Star is counting down the best players, biggest questions and most interesting facts about the Arizona Wildcats, who open their season Nov. 7 at Utah.
For the first time in the Kevin Sumlin era, Arizona has unveiled its team captains for the entire season.
Quarterback Grant Gunnell, outside linebacker Jalen Harris, linebacker Anthony Pandy, cornerback Lorenzo Burns and tight end Bryce Wolma have one thing in common: experience.
And while all of them will have a significant impact during Arizona’s condensed, COVID-19-affected season, only one can be the most valuable.
Here are five players who could be the Wildcats’ MVP in 2020:
Jalen Harris, OLB
The redshirt junior shifted from defensive end to outside linebacker to fit into first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads’ 3-4 defensive scheme. Harris’ role as an edge rusher hasn’t changed, and penetrating the backfield and attacking the quarterback will be a primary task for him. This season, he’ll also drop back into coverage. Harris, who has packed roughly 53 pounds to his 6-foot-5-inch frame since his freshman year, said pass coverage “is kind of a new thing and I’m still learning.”
“I’ll keep the offense on their toes, because they don’t know if I’m dropping or coming,” Harris said.
For the first time in his Arizona career, Harris has a coach — Andy Buh — dedicated to his position. Harris has been a popular choice to have a breakout season for the last two years. Maybe that time will come now that he possesses a captain’s title and is working with a veteran coach.
Lorenzo Burns, CB
Arizona defensive backs coach Greg Burns (no relation) classified Burns as an “old head” of the Wildcats’ secondary. The fifth-year senior has recorded 168 tackles, nine interceptions and 34 pass deflections over 37 career games. Burns, who chose to return to Tucson for one more season rather than test the NFL draft waters, just might be Arizona’s most pro-ready prospect on defense.
“Being able to come back and up my stock and being able to put more things on film, maybe we’ll get some questions answered from NFL scouts and teams, and I just felt like me coming back would be another opportunity to answer those questions,” Burns said.
Anthony Pandy, LB
You could make a case that no player is more important to Arizona’s defense than Pandy, who takes over the “Mike” linebacker position held by Colin Schooler since 2017. With Schooler gone to Texas Tech and Tony Fields II now at West Virginia, Pandy is the most experienced linebacker on the team.
“I’m calling the shots on defense,” said Pandy. “Since they left, I realized that I have to step up a lot, mature more, set the example and just try to teach the freshmen what Colin and Tony taught me. … They helped me out, so I’m gonna do what I can to help out these freshmen.”
Donovan Laie, OL
Personal and family issues compelled Laie, Arizona’s veteran offensive lineman, to announce a month ago that he was putting his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal.
His UA family convinced the junior to stay another year.
“I felt like they kind of just gave me something that I needed to hear, something that I’ve been wanting to hear,” Laie said after changing his mind.
“I felt valued here. … It’s kind of like family away from family. Just having people out here that I know have my back no matter what. People seem to be genuine, and that’s something that I look (for) when I build relationships.”
In 2018, Laie became the first freshman in at least two decades to start all 12 regular season games at left tackle. Last season, he started every game at either left tackle or guard.
This year, the 6-5, 325-pound Laie is presumed to start at left guard, with the athletic Jordan Morgan at left tackle.
Grant Gunnell, QB
From the moment the sun set on Khalil Tate’s Arizona career, Gunnell became the Wildcats’ poster child — literally.
When Arizona’s marketing team pushed season tickets for the 2020 season before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Gunnell’s face was plastered on essentially every promotional poster.
Gunnell is the only underclassman among Arizona’s team captains.
Given the problems facing their defense, the Wildcats may have rely on Gunnell’s arm and leadership in order to win games this season.
Gunnell chose the UA over Texas A&M, Ohio State and other high-profile programs in part because he wanted to play for offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Sumlin. His play the season could determine if those two coaches are with Arizona in the future.
If Gunnell lives up to the hype, he could bring back memories of another tall Texan who is considered one of the best to sling the ball at Arizona, Nick Foles.
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