Since Kevin Sumlin was hired to change the image and trajectory of Arizona's football program, the school has debuted a $16 million indoor training facility and spent $25 million to renovate portions of Arizona Stadium.
Yet on the field, the Wildcats lost road games by 41, 32 and 27 points; touted quarterback Khalil Tate was injured and dropped from 1,411 rushing yards to 224; and Arizona collapsed late in the final game of the season, losing to rival Arizona State 41–40.
Perhaps the two most significant additions to Arizona’s program are assistant coaches. Former NFL standout DeMarco Murray now coaches the running backs, and ex-NFL offensive lineman Kyle DeVan now coaches Arizona’s linemen. Both have engaging personalities and are in their early 30s, which should give Arizona's struggling recruiting efforts more production.
Previewing Arizona's Offense for 2019
Tate was often undisciplined and didn't seem to grasp new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system in 2018. His completion percentage dropped from 62 to 56, and he was often unwilling to leave the pocket and run, a skill that a year earlier made him the first player in Pac-12 history to be named Offensive Player of the Week four weeks in succession. "He's learning to be a quarterback," Mazzone said in spring camp. The Wildcats don't appear to have a ready replacement.
Junior tailback J.J. Taylor rushed for 1,434 yards and was a revelation, getting the most out of his size — 5'6", 184 pounds. If he stays healthy, he'll take considerable pressure off Tate and Arizona's receiving group, which lost its three most productive players. Senior Cedric Peterson (18 receptions 2018) is the most experienced returning wideout. He's a possession-type receiver. The Wildcats are hopeful that freshman Boobie Curry becomes the big-play receiver they’ve been lacking.
Sumlin's spring focus was on developing the offensive line, which lacks depth. One positive is that sophomore Donovan Laie has displayed all-conference skills and is expected to join senior tackle Cody Creason and senior center Josh McCauley in a leadership role while new linemen such as junior college transfers Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears break into the system. Those occupying backup spots on the offensive line have not played anything more than mop-up time.
Previewing Arizona's Defense for 2019
Arizona finished 92nd nationally in total defense last year, preceded by finishes of 119th and 102nd. Sumlin has made progress on that side of the ball, though; his defensive front not only has suitable size with J.B. Brown and Finton Connolly, but new players Myles Tapusoa and Nahe Sulunga also pass the eye test. They'll be joined by three-year letterman Justin Belknap in a reworked defensive front. The problem is that there is little depth. Sophomore pass rusher Jalen Harris, however, has the look of a potential star-level player.
Arizona's linebacking unit is the strength of the club. Juniors Colin Schooler and Tony Fields are two-year starters. Schooler made 119 tackles, 21.5 of them for a loss, as a sophomore. Fields was also productive with 89 tackles. Junior Anthony Pandy had a strong break-in season last year and joins two-year starter Kylan Wilborn to give Arizona a competitive group.
The return of fifth-year senior cornerback Jace Whittaker was one of the most positive developments of the offseason. He missed 2018 with an elbow injury and is the leader of the defensive unit. He is surrounded by three players with a combined 44 starts — safeties Scottie Young Jr. and Tristan Cooper and cornerback Lorenzo Burns.
Developing younger players on defense is a must if Arizona is to hold up over 12 games; freshman corner Christian Roland-Wallace and freshman linebacker Day Day Coleman climbed the depth chart in spring drills and appear ready to contribute.
Previewing Arizona's Specialists for 2019
Junior Lucas Havrisik will no longer share placekicking duties. The job is his. He made just six field goals last season, so it’s a risky proposition. Uncertainty also describes the punting situation. Freshman Kyle Ostendorp will challenge senior Matt Aragon to replace Dylan Klumpf, one of the league’s top punters last year.
Many in college football expected Arizona to challenge for the Pac-12 South title a year ago, but that expectation dissolved in the space of eight days as the Wildcats lost to BYU and Houston.
There is much less positive energy in Tucson this year. Tate struggled so much from start to finish that the club’s quarterbacking — believed to be the strength of the program — is now an uncertainty. If Tate comes close to matching his 2017 form, using his considerable scrambling skills, Arizona should be a tough out.
Arizona’s schedule isn’t favorable. It plays road games at USC, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State. The Wildcats are 3–15 in conference road games the last four years, losing by a cumulative 344 points.
This year, Arizona should have some break-in time, against Hawaii and Northern Arizona, to identify starters on the offensive and defensive lines and to determine if Tate understands and can effectively operate Mazzone’s offense.