Arizona's unexpected firing of Rich Rodriguez in January 2018 left one of the most exciting returning players in college football without a coach. The hire of Kevin Sumlin a few weeks later, however, made the already-intriguing forecast for Khalil Tate's 2018 all the more tantalizing.
Tate surged into the national consciousness from relative obscurity in October 2017, leading an Arizona team picked to finish last-place in the Pac-12 South to a Top 25 ranking. His skill set combined with Sumlin's pedigree — which included working with Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel — set sky-high expectations. Bookending sour start and finish to 2018 defined the Wildcats' first season under Sumlin, however, and precipitated transfer rumors that never went anywhere.
Despite the disappointment of 2018, Arizona showed flashes of promise. A veteran-heavy roster offers hope for the Wildcats competing in what should be a wide-open Pac-12 South in 2019.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona's Spring Practice
1. What's ahead for Tate?
A lingering ankle injury and adjustments to coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense hindered the production of erstwhile Heisman Trophy hopeful Khalil Tate in 2018. His rushing totals dipped from 1,411 yards in 2017, most among all quarterbacks in FBS, to 224 last season; 13 less than he accrued as a reserve in '16.
Despite the staggering drop in rushing yardage, it wasn't all bad for Tate in 2018. He came on strong as a passer late in the season, and finished with 12 more touchdowns than the season prior (26 vs. 14) while cutting down on interceptions (8 vs. 9). The spring should set the tone for Tate's continued evolution as a passer, and perhaps offer some insight into how much Mazzone plans to let the quarterback run come autumn.
2. Rebuilding at receiver
A big part (figuratively and literally) of Tate's solid passing in the back half of 2018 was 6-foot-5 wide receiver Shawn Poindexter. Poindexter emerged as an especially dangerous scoring threat, with more than a quarter of his 42 receptions going for touchdowns (11). His eight-touchdown, four-game stretch late in the campaign was the most exciting effort from a Poindexter on the Arizona campus since the violin intro to Lamda Lamda Lamda's Homecoming performance.
While Poindexter's the most noticeable departure, he's hardly the only target the Wildcats must replace. Reliable Shun Brown and explosive Tony Ellison are both out, as well. Returners Stanley Berryhill III, Devaughn Cooper, and Cedric Peterson will be some of the initial contenders to take on heavier workloads in 2019.
3. Establishing depth
A concern for Arizona football pre-dating Sumlin's arrival has been depth. It remains one of the more prominent challenges for the Wildcats to compete in 2019, particularly in the trenches. Arizona Daily Star beat reporter Michael Lev noted the bevy of transfers from the offensive line this offseason, of which there are as many as newcomers UA adds on the front five.
While the Wildcats have most of last year's starting offensive line still around, the program's misfortune with injury in recent years underscores the need for depth. That's as true on the offensive line as it is on the defensive front, a longstanding challenge for coordinator Marcel Yates entering his fourth season in the role.
4. Defensive line progress
Aside from a 2014 in which linebacker Scooby Wright played out of his mind, Arizona's defense has been a consistent mess for the better part of a decade. Former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates took the same job at Arizona ahead of the 2016 season, aiming to restore a defense comparable to the Desert Swarm glory days of the '90s.
The massive overhaul from predecessor Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 odd stack has proven especially challenging, particularly in finding enough big bodies to operate the 52 base formation of Yates' scheme. Tinkering last season led to some unorthodox but productive moves, like shifting 335-pound tackle P.J. Johnson to defensive end. Johnson's gone, however, and the cycle of Arizona trying to solidy its front under Yates continues. Similar maneuvering may be in order this offseason to give the Wildcats some beef on the line.
5. Momentum for the Sumlin era
The circumstances leading to Sumlin's hire at UA were unusual. His late addition, coupled with an early spring schedule, left for a remarkably tight window to get the new coaching staff acclimated. Last spring seemed to set a tone for the first year under Sumlin; it took until about Halloween and a rout of Oregon for Arizona to look comfortable.
This spring is much more traditional, and should function as a more positive building block into Sumlin's second season. The expectations and schemes are more clearly defined than they were a year ago.