The first 20 conference seasons of the 21st century have not been kind to Arizona.
The Wildcats lost more league games than any other Pac-12 team. They allowed more yards and more points than any conference opponent. They fired four coaches and extended their 0-for-forever streak of never getting to the Rose Bowl to 42 years. To add to the agony, the Wildcats averaged just 39,532 fans at Arizona Stadium last season, the smallest total since the facility was expanded in 1976.
Kevin Sumlin begins his third season in Tucson by losing half of his coaching staff; three were fired and two departed for what appear to be more secure jobs, at Oklahoma and Colorado. Spring practice was canceled after four workouts, leaving Sumlin with significant roster questions at every position except receiver, linebacker and quarterback.
“We’re fighting, we’re grinding,” says Sumlin, whose contract runs through the 2022 season. “We knew this wouldn’t be an easy fix.”
Since Arizona won the Pac-12 South under Rich Rodriguez in 2014, the Wildcats have gone 15–30 in conference games. The available talent has been such that the Wildcats have produced just one first-team All-Pac-12 player over the last five years. That’s the troublesome setting in which Arizona begins a new decade.
Previewing Arizona's Offense for 2020
Sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell, who shared the 2019 starting job with two-year starter Khalil Tate, is the most promising young player on the roster. He threw for 1,239 yards, completed 65.1 percent of his passes and was intercepted just once as a freshman. Though young, he is the unquestioned team leader.
If Arizona has a strength, it is Gunnell and his receivers. Brian Casteel, Jamarye Joiner, Boobie Curry, Stanley Berryhill III, Drew Dixon and Tayvian Cunningham combined to catch 153 passes in an otherwise sluggish 4–8 season. Grad transfer Brenden Schooler, from Oregon, is a valuable receiving asset. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will be able to implement his system fully with Gunnell, a pocket passer.
Running backs Gary Brightwell and Michael Wiley played considerably in 2019 and are also considered go-to threats in the passing game.
Arizona’s offensive line has a number of useful returning players, especially junior left tackle Donovan Laie, a two-year starter, and center Josh McCauley, who has started 22 games. The Wildcats are likely to open the season mixing and matching from among Paiton Fears, Robert Congel, Josh Donovan, Edgar Burrola and sophomore Jordan Morgan, who might be the club’s future offensive line leader. Behind that group, depth is a concern.
Previewing Arizona's Defense for 2020
The Wildcats have allowed an average of 34.0 points per game dating back to 2014, the league’s highest average over that span. That number is likely to improve this season because of experience alone; 10 returning players have been full- or part-time starters. Beyond that, there are still many unknowns.
New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, formerly the head coach at Iowa State, responded to a question about the depth of Arizona’s defense by saying, “What depth?’’ Rhoads had to hire a totally new defensive staff, including 67-year old line coach Stan Eggen, who had been at New Mexico, and Andy Buh, who has coached at eight schools over the last 13 years.
The strength of Arizona’s team is at linebacker. Seniors Colin Schooler is a three-year starter. Senior Anthony Pandy emerged as a productive linebacker last season, and edge rusher Jalen Harris has been a significant contributor for two years. The summer transfer of Tony Fields does add some uncertainty to this spot.
New secondary coach Greg Burns will have to rebuild the safety position. After veteran Scottie Young Jr.’s decision to transfer, Burns will likely consider moving former Oregon receiver-safety Brenden Schooler to Young’s position. Young was the fourth Arizona safety to transfer since 2019. The cornerback situation is much better; senior Lorenzo Burns is a two-year starter and sophomore Christian Roland-Wallace won a starting job late in the 2019 season. Sophomore Bobby Wolfe has been a capable nickel back.
The defensive line has finally added adequate size to compare with top Pac-12 programs. Trevon Mason, Myles Tapusoa and JB Brown broke into the lineup in 2019. Sophomore Kyon Barrs is expected to play a big role in the rotation.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2020 Predictions
Previewing Arizona's Specialists for 2020
Lucas Havrisik, who kicked 10 field goals last season, begins his senior year unchallenged for kickoff and field-goal duty. Kyle Ostendorp became a reliable punter at the end of the 2019 season. Cunningham, the fastest runner on the team, is expected to be the lead kickoff returner. Joiner, a former quarterback, developed into a strong punt returner last year.
If Gunnell isn’t productive, Sumlin’s job security will be the top story at Arizona Stadium. The school would have to pay him a $5 million buyout if it fires him. The other quarterbacks on the roster don’t appear ready for week-to-week competition in the Pac-12. Arizona’s schedule is unforgiving, and that makes beating Hawaii in the opener and at least splitting against Stanford and UCLA in the first two league games almost essential to saving Sumlin’s job.