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With no fall football, Kevin Sumlin and the Wildcats shift focus to ‘next opportunity'
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Arizona football

With no fall football, Kevin Sumlin and the Wildcats shift focus to ‘next opportunity'

Arizona was to have opened ’20 season on Aug. 29; playing in early ’21 remains a possibility

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Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin will try to keep his team focused, even though there are no games scheduled through the end of 2020. “You have to train, not necessarily prepare for a certain opponent,” he said. “Is that difficult? Yes. But that’s what they pay us to do as coaches.”

It was just a passing reference, two words spoken during a half-hour video news conference during which more than 3,000 were uttered. But man, were those two words jarring.

UA coach Kevin Sumlin, speaking to reporters Tuesday, noted that the Wildcats’ season was supposed to start next week. The Wildcats were supposed to face Hawaii at Arizona Stadium on Aug. 29.

That game, as we all know, was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. So was the entirety of the Pac-12 season, even after the schedule was remade.

Instead of fine-tuning the’ game plan for the Rainbow Warriors, Sumlin and his staff have been formulating a plan for the rest of this football-less fall.

“So many times, athletes, coaches, trainers, (they) train for that particular season,” Sumlin said. “So everything’s put into a timeline: Here’s when we start, here’s what we’re looking for this season.

“But as a competitor, what we’ve talked about (is), this is completely different. You have to continue to train, not necessarily prepare for a certain opponent but prepare for the next opportunity that you’re going to get, (even though) you don’t know when that happens.

“Is that difficult? Yes. But that’s what they pay us to do as coaches.”

Sumlin and his staff are trying to build a team culture despite not knowing when that team will play its next game or what the roster will look like. The Wildcats had just begun what Sumlin described as “an NFL-style OTA model” of practice — 20 hours a week consisting of workouts, meetings and walk-throughs — when the Pac-12 decided to postpone the fall season on Aug. 11.

That program continues indefinitely while the Pac-12 and the other leagues that opted to shut down, including the Big Ten, begin to formulate plans for a spring alternative. Sumlin isn’t ready to go there yet, because so much remains uncertain. It was the idea of a spring season that prompted his reference to “next week.”

“Our preparation is going to be to get us better through this process,” Sumlin said. “It’s hard to say, to make that kind of plan right now, based on what we’ve seen over the last couple months.

“What we would like was to play football and play next week. But that didn’t happen. When you ask a coach what you’d like to see, that’s fine. But what can really happen is going to be a different scenario.

In coach Kevin Sumlin’s second season at UA, the Wildcats went 4-8 and averaged 26 points per game.

“Do the kids want to play? The majority of them do. I really believe that, particularly if they know it’s about a safe an environment as it could be.”

‘Now what?’

The news, as UA athletic director Dave Heeke noted last week, already had leaked by the time the fall sports teams officially were informed. That didn’t make Sumlin’s address to his squad any easier. The normally nonchalant coach had to compose himself first.

“We’re all human,” Sumlin said. “It affected me. I knew a little bit before the announcement happened. Some people saw me and knew something was up because I wasn’t myself that day.”

Sumlin’s job sometimes forces him to deliver news that his players and fellow coaches don’t want to hear. Such was the case the previous Tuesday. Sumlin didn’t have many concrete answers for the group either.

“It wasn’t a great situation for anybody,” Sumlin said. “But as I said (to the players), it’s ‘Now what?’ Once that decision is made, now what? What we’ve worked on and what we’re working on constantly is the plan for ‘Now what?’ — what’s that going to look like?”

As Sumlin said Tuesday, it isn’t as simple as “just moving on.” It’s critical that the Wildcats be ready for the next season, no matter when it starts or what it looks like. As such, they have shifted the emphasis to self-improvement.

“You’re not preparing for a specific opponent yet,” Sumlin said. “What you’re preparing is yourself.”

Sumlin acknowledged that the situation isn’t the same for everyone. Newcomers are happy to be here and to have started their college careers, even if the current reality doesn’t match what they envisioned. Some upperclassmen are contemplating what might be next – and it might not be playing football in a UA uniform.

“Let’s be honest,” Sumlin said. “Players are gonna make decisions about this year.”

Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin talks with Chris Petersen before Washington’s 51-27 win in Tucson in October.

The timing and structure of a “spring” season could influence those decisions. In a radio interview Monday, Stanford coach David Shaw called for “winter football” taking place in January, February and March. That schedule would give NFL hopefuls adequate time to prepare for the draft and returning players more time to rest for the following season.

Most important, Sumlin said, is figuring out the eligibility ramifications for participants.

“That conversation needs to be had and needs to be solved,” Sumlin said.

A father’s perspective

Nothing illustrates the strangeness of the current situation for Sumlin better than this: One of his sons, Jackson, is a walk-on tight end/H-back at Oklahoma, where his father once coached. The Sooners play in the Big 12, one of three Power Five conferences that are forging ahead with the fall season.

Kevin Sumlin last week participated in a Zoom call with Lincoln Riley and OU medical personnel – as a parent.

“I have a son who’s right in the thick of it in a league that’s trying to ramp up to play,” Sumlin said. “It gives me another perspective, sure, but I think it also gives our own players another perspective of where I am — not just as a coach but as a dad.”

Another twist: Sumlin’s youngest son, Joey, plays for Salpointe Catholic High School. The Lancers just started virtual classes. While Kevin Sumlin spoke from his office at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, Joey was engaged in online school at his father’s home office.

Salpointe still plans to play football this fall, although that remains far from certain. Sumlin is hopeful his sons will have an opportunity to play. But he’s skeptical that the Pac-12’s rivals will make it to the starting blocks, let alone the finish line. Several universities already have shifted to online instruction amid outbreaks of the virus.

“Today, people are saying they’re gonna play,” Sumlin said. “Just like we came out with a schedule, and a week later we were done. Let’s wait a couple of weeks and see what happens.”

Extra points

  • Sumlin said players are welcome to seek second opinions on medical issues, a concern that arose after suspended offensive tackle Edgar Burrola contended that a shoulder injury of his was brushed off last season. “Wherever I have been as a head coach, including here, the players have had the right to seek a second opinion,” Sumlin said. “At no point have I ever said anything other than that.”
  • Recruiting remains under a “dead period” through at least the end of September, and Sumlin doesn’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. “I don’t know how you’re going to have official visits before the end of the year, or even early in the spring, or unofficial visits (with) guys coming on campus not being tested,” Sumlin said. He suggested that the early signing period, slated for Dec. 16-18, could be “a great opportunity for a young man in a time that is uncertain.” Arizona currently has 20 verbal commitments for 2021.

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