Originally Published: August 16, 2018 11:19 p.m.
TUCSON — Most times when a new coach takes over a program, the expectations are tempered. Arizona is looking to contend for a Pac-12 South title in Kevin Sumlin’s first season.
The Wildcats are loaded with talent offensively, are led by one of the nation’s most dynamic players and have a chance to be much better defensively than they were under Rich Rodriguez. Why not anticipate being in contention for a division title?
“I think my expectation is to win,” Sumlin said. “It sounds kind of harsh, but I have to take care of everybody’s expectations. I understand what the consequences are, believe me. I set the bar high for our program, I set the bar high for our players. That’s the way I’ve always done things.”
Sumlin inherits a program with plenty of returning talent and has supplemented the roster with high-level recruits, just as he did in stints at Texas A&M and Houston.
Quarterback Khalil Tate burst onto the scene as a sophomore last year and could be even better this season with nearly a year of starting under his belt. Running back J.J. Taylor is quick and elusive, and the offensive line should be one of Arizona’s strengths.
Arizona has plenty back on defense, even if it is from a group that was among the Pac-12’s worst last season. The Wildcats also have some size up front, which should prevent them from getting pushed around like they have been in the past.
“We’ve got a young team, fortunately a lot of guys that have played, and I think our energy level because of that is high,” Sumlin said. “These guys are a work in progress, but I like how they’ve worked since we’ve been there.”
A few more things to look for from Arizona in its first season under Sumlin:
Tate went from starting last season as a backup quarterback to putting himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a stretch of eye-popping games. Tate started just nine games, but still racked up 1,591 yards passing and another 1,411 rushing while accounting for 26 TDs. Tate is expected to be more of a passing threat under Sumlin and has become a team leader, not to mention a favorite Heisman Trophy contender. “I think that’s what all great teams need,” Tate said. “If you have a great leader, then you’re going to do pretty well as far as getting better every day.”
Taylor appeared to be Arizona’s go-to running back as a freshman after running for 168 yards and a TD against Hawaii. Taylor’s first season was derailed by a broken ankle the fourth game of the season and he had a solid redshirt freshman season, running for 828 yards while accounting for seven TDs. He should be an integral part of Sumlin’s balanced offense.
LINEBACKERS GROWING UP
Arizona started four freshmen on defense last year, which contributed to the Wildcats being one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses. Three of those were linebackers who will now be leaders of the defense as sophomores. Tony Fields II, Kylan Wilborn and Colin Schooler all had strong freshman seasons and should be even better this season with more experience and a better understanding of the college game.
Arizona had all kinds of problems with its punt game, ranking last in the FBS at 34.2 yards per game while routinely giving opponents good field position. The addition of Cal graduate transfer Dylan Klumph should change that. Klumph, who is expected to earn the starting job, was fourth in the Pac-12 at 42.9 yards per punt in 2017.
The Wildcats open the season at home against BYU, and have nonconference games at Houston and against Southern Utah in Tucson.
Arizona has a somewhat forgiving schedule by not having to play Washington or Stanford, but still has road games against Utah and UCLA. The Sept. 29 game against USC in Tucson could be a key in the Pac-12 South race, even though it’s only the second conference game.
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