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Arizona Football: Wildcats' 2020 Spring Preview

Arizona Football: Wildcats' 2020 Spring Preview

Arizona Football: Wildcats' 2020 Spring Preview

When Rich Rodriguez was abruptly fired in January 2018 — coming off Arizona's fifth winning season in six years and with expectations high for quarterback Khalil Tate — Wildcats football was thrown into an unenviable situation.

Quickly hiring Kevin Sumlin appeared to be a home run, given the circumstances. After all, Sumlin helped transform Oklahoma's offense in the mid-2000s, led Houston to heights not seen in the Southwest Conference days, and — despite his ouster after the 2017 season — left Texas A&M with a winning percentage comparable to that of R.C. Slocum.

Two years through Sumlin's tenure, however, Arizona has sputtered to 5-7 and 4-8 finishes that followed dramatically different arcs. The 2018 team came out of the gate slow before scoring some big, late-season wins. In 2019, Arizona opened 4-1 and looked like a possible Pac-12 South contender before losing all seven of its final games.

Spring practice ushers in a do-or-die season for Sumlin's era at Arizona. Plenty of new faces both on the field and the sidelines shape this critical campaign.

5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona's Spring Practice

1. The Grant Gunnell era begins (officially)

Signing quarterback Grant Gunnell was a huge coup for Sumlin's staff, and the Texas product proved too talented to redshirt. Gunnell played plenty with Khalil Tate sustaining an injury early in the season, but continued taking snaps with Tate back in the lineup, and put together some impressive statistics.

Gunnell heads into 2020 coming off a nine-touchdown, one-interception, 1,239-yard freshman season. It's now his offense and his offense exclusively.

2. Difficult Rhoads ahead

As Arizona's once-promising 2019 campaign began to unravel, Sumlin made a series of moves within his staff. Most prominent was the dismissal of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, a holdover from Rich Rodriguez's tenure who attempted to implement a modernized version of Arizona's celebrated '90s Desert Swarm defense.

It never quite worked out, and last year hit a nadir with finishes of 11th in the Pac-12 against the rush and pass, and dead-last in scoring defense.

Paul Rhoads was tabbed to turn around the long-struggling Arizona defense, and the former Iowa State head coach has an especially challenging job ahead of him. The Wildcats aren't lacking for playmakers, with Kylan Wilborn, Tony Fields II, and Colin Schooler in the front seven, but depth issues continue to be a concern.

3. Skill position options

A storyline for Arizona a year ago at this time focused on the wide receiving corps, which faced considerable turnover. The unit is much less of a mystery in 2020, returning statistical leaders Jamarye Joiner, Stanley Berryhill III, Brian Casteel, and Tayvian Cunningham.

And while the group loses Cedric Peterson, the addition of Oregon transfer Brenden Schooler provides one more option. Schooler caught three touchdowns in 2017 for the Ducks.

Running back is less certain, with J.J. Taylor headed to the NFL. However, Gary Brightwell, Nathan Tilford, and Bam Smith all saw significant touches in 2019, so there's some depth in the rotation.

4. Can early enrollees exceed expectations?

Arizona's disappointment on the field in 2019 was compounded on national signing day, with the Wildcats finishing No. 62 in 247Sports' class rankings. Arizona will need signees to exceed expectations if it's to compete in the Pac-12, and the process begins with the early enrollees at spring practices.

Roberto Miranda, a tight end from Germany, is among the newcomers who will join the mix for spring ball. Three-star Florida offensive lineman Woody Jean could be another name to watch, particularly with front five depth vexing the Wildcats in recent years.

5. Building The A

The above subhead is the social media tagline Arizona's adopted for 2020. It's a construction project that can't endure any delays after the disappointment of the past two seasons. While expectations for Sumlin's immediate arrival were arguably set too high, with a fair portion of the punditry projecting Tate's October 2017 being the norm.

That never panned out for various reasons, including injury. Coupled with lackluster defensive performance, Arizona struggled to get going. While it is indeed a building project for Sumlin, whose vision differs from Rodriguez's, the Wildcats need to show marked improvement immediately.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.