Preview: Arizona looking to bounce back in Sumlin’s second season
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona gathered as a team in January to discuss what went wrong in coach Kevin Sumlin’s first season and what the Wildcats needed to change for year two.
The main focus: consistency. The Wildcats didn’t have it in 2018 and need to find it this season.
Bouncing back from disappointment depends on it.
“These guys have accepted that challenge,” Sumlin said. “Our coaching staff has accepted that challenge and I’m really proud of how these guys have responded.”
Arizona expected to contend for the Pac-12 South title last season.
The Wildcats were loaded offensively, had one of the nation’s most dynamic players in quarterback Khalil Tate and Sumlin showed off his recruiting chops with a solid opening class.
The blend never came together and Arizona sputtered through the season, opening with losses to BYU and Houston on the way to a 5-7 season. Tate struggled with injuries most of the season and the Wildcats closed with a disheartening loss, blowing a 19-point second-half lead to rival Arizona State in a loss that cost them a bowl bid.
Arizona has question marks this season — both lines, receiving corps — but Tate returns, J.J. Taylor is one of the conference’s best running backs and the Wildcats have playmakers returning on defense.
They also have a year under their belt playing for Sumlin, so they understand his system and his expectations.
Now they hope to take the next step from a season that didn’t go the way they envisioned.
“I couldn’t be happier with the consistency and the effort that these guys have put in in the offseason,” Sumlin said. “Now, now we’ve got to go to work and let’s see where we are as a team.”
A few more things to look for from Arizona in 2019:
Tate entered last season with plenty of Heisman Trophy hype. He never lived up to it, derailed by injuries and playing in a new system under Sumlin. Tate was at his most dangerous in the open field as a sophomore, but Sumlin’s offense called for him to be more passer than runner. Tate threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns, but was limited to 224 yards — 123 less than he had in one game in 2017 — on 74 carries. Tate was one of Arizona’s leaders during offseason workouts and should feel much more comfortable in Sumlin’s offense.
Taylor had a heavy workload last season, rushing 255 times for 1,485 yards — seventh nationally — to earn third-team Associated Press All-America honors. The Wildcats will likely lean heavily on him again this season. At 5-foot-6, 185 pounds, the junior is elusive, but not afraid to bowl over defenders. He’s also an adept kick returner.
Arizona may lack depth on the defensive line but the Wildcats are in good shape at linebacker. Junior Colin Schooler is one of the Pac-12’s best linebackers, finishing with 119 tackles last season, including 21.5 for loss. Tony Fields and Kylan Wilborn are also two-year starters and junior Anthony Pandy could have a breakout season if he stays healthy.
Arizona will need someone to step up at receiver with Shawn Poindexter, Shun Brown and Tony Ellison — its top three pass catchers from a year ago — all gone. Senior Cedric Peterson caught 18 passes last season and the Wildcats have high hopes for freshman Boobie Curry to have an immediate impact.
Arizona opens its season in what’s being called “zero week,” playing at Hawaii on Aug. 24. The Wildcats also face Northern Arizona and Texas Tech in nonconference. Arizona has some tough road games in the Pac-12, including Southern California, Stanford, Oregon and rival Arizona State.