Kevin Sumlin’s first recruiting class at Arizona focused heavily on the lines. Sumlin and his staff also secured the quarterback position, for both the present and future.
On the same day he welcomed 20 new Wildcats, including record-setting quarterback Grant Gunnell, Sumlin revealed that incumbent QB Khalil Tate would be returning for his senior season.
Sumlin spoke with Tate and his parents Tuesday, and collectively concluded that Tate’s best move would be to return in 2019 and work to improve his game.
Having Tate come back for one more year might have been Sumlin’s biggest recruiting coup of the week.
“I thought our conversation was a good one,” Sumlin said. “We talked about the NFL evaluation. We talked about his conversations with his parents and with me. We talked about a lot of different things.
“But more than anything else, he talked about being excited to come back here and get started in the spring, getting better, some of the things he’s got to work on.”
As this past season progressed, and Tate struggled to play through an ankle injury while adjusting to a new offensive system, rumors surfaced that he might transfer.
However, Tate and Sumlin talked in late November and the subject of transferring didn’t come up. Tate would have needed to graduate by this summer to be eligible at another FBS school next season.
Arizona sought an NFL draft evaluation for Tate from the league’s College Advisory Committee. The three possible outcomes are potential first-round pick, potential second-round pick or neither, which is a recommendation to stay in school. The committee advised Tate to remain at Arizona.
Tate is an incredibly gifted athlete who can throw the ball 70-plus yards and outrun the fastest defensive backs when healthy. He’s also young for his class, having turned 20 in late October, and remains an unfinished product as an all-around player.
Despite the ankle injury and a slow start that quickly submarined his Heisman Trophy campaign, Tate passed for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns — both career highs — with only eight interceptions. His rushing yardage plummeted from 1,411 in 2017 to 224, in part because of the injury and in part because of a commitment to becoming a better pocket passer.
“We talked about him being injured and the ability to run and some yards that were left out there,” Sumlin said. “We also talked about how he can be better and what that looks like. Those were some questions that he asked, things that we talked about candidly. He’s excited to be coming back and excited to get back to work.”
Tate’s return gives him another year to work with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who altered his scheme during the season in an attempt to take advantage of Tate’s skills. It also will enable Arizona to take its time with young quarterbacks Kevin Doyle, Jamarye Joiner and Gunnell, one of eight midyear enrollees set to arrive in Tucson in January.
Like the rest of Arizona’s 2019 signing class, Sumlin attributed the completion of Gunnell’s recruitment to relationships. Gunnell previously had been committed to Texas A&M, where Sumlin and Mazzone last worked. After Sumlin was fired by A&M and resurfaced at Arizona, bringing Mazzone with him, the relationship was rekindled. Gunnell made it official at a signing-day ceremony at St. Pius X High School in Houston.
“He’s the all-time leading passer in the state of Texas. Last time I checked, there’s been some pretty good quarterbacks there,” Sumlin said. “He’s smart and has won a lot of games — that combination is something that you look for, something I look for in a quarterback.”
The Texas quarterbacks whose numbers Gunnell obliterated included former UA standout Nick Foles and Drew Brees, whom Sumlin worked with at Purdue.
“Maybe we’re on to something here,” Sumlin joked.
Gunnell wasn’t the only St. Pius product to sign with Arizona on Wednesday. His teammate and friend, four-star receiver Boobie Curry, also pulled out an Arizona hat.
Another four-star prospect from Houston, cornerback Bobby Wolfe of James Madison High School, signed with the UA as well, boosting the Wildcats’ national and conference rankings. By the end of Wednesday, Arizona ranked 48th nationally and seventh in the Pac-12 per 247Sports. Rivals had the Wildcats 55th and eighth, respectively.
While Gunnell, Curry and Wolfe were the splashy additions, the overall class is more about substance than style. Arizona signed four offensive linemen, including Marana’s Jordan Morgan, and four defensive linemen. Half of them are junior college products who are expected to contribute immediately.
“We had a definite plan coming into this thing,” Sumlin said. “Priority No. 1 was the offensive and defensive lines. Four apiece on those with size.
“In the past and other places where we’ve been, we’ve been able to utilize our junior college players. … Particularly the closer you get to the football, in the trenches, where — there’s no hiding it — we lacked size and depth last year.”
Sumlin acknowledged that former NFL tailback DeMarco Murray is among the candidates to become Arizona’s running backs coach.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Wednesday that Murray was considering the job, and he was spotted on campus before Sumlin’s 3 p.m. signing-day news conference.
Sumlin has known Murray since the former running back was a high school player in Las Vegas. Murray was a freshman at Oklahoma in 2007, Sumlin’s final year in Norman before becoming the head coach at Houston.
“I’ve had a couple different candidates that we’ve brought to campus,” Sumlin said. “I’ve known DeMarco since he was a senior at Bishop Gorman High School. He’s a quality man, a class act. He had expressed some interest in getting into coaching. Because of that relationship, he’s another guy that we’re talking to.”
Murray, 30, played in the NFL for seven seasons, his last with Tennessee in 2017. He spent this past season as a college football analyst for Fox.
Sumlin is seeking a replacement for longtime right-hand man Clarence McKinney, who had been his running backs coach since 2008. McKinney is now the head coach at Texas Southern.
Asked whether he expected defensive tackle PJ Johnson and cornerback Jace Whittaker to be back next season, Sumlin said: “I do at this point.”
Like Tate, Johnson received a stay-in-school grade on his NFL draft evaluation. Johnson, a junior college transfer who excelled in his first season at Arizona, has filled out the paperwork for a sixth year of eligibility.
Whittaker missed all but one series of his senior year because of injuries. However, he hadn’t previously used a redshirt, so he can come back for a fifth season.
- The last addition to Arizona’s ’19 class was three-star defensive back Chris Roland of Palmdale, California. Roland seriously considered USC before deciding to stick with his commitment to the Wildcats.
- Although pleased with the class overall, Sumlin remains determined to make headway in the state of Arizona. The Wildcats signed only two in-state players: Morgan and Phoenix punter Kyle Ostendorp. “We’re going to start everything in-state,” Sumlin said. “That’s important. Next year is a big year in the state of Arizona.”
- Construction on the Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center continues to hum along, and Sumlin said the biggest advantage will be consistent practice times during training camp. “You guys forgot to tell me about this thing called monsoon (season),” he said. “Now we can have a standard practice time and not have to worry about it. I’ve become kind of a weatherman since I’ve been here with radar on my desk, trying to figure out what time and how far away because of lightning.”