Following a dismal, injury-plagued 2016 season, Arizona Wildcats football rebounded in 2017 with a magic October run. Quarterback Khalil Tate taking over the offense produced a four-game winning streak, which included Arizona's first defeat of Pac-12 South foe UCLA since 2011; a blowout win over top 15-ranked Washington State; and the program's first top 25 ranking since the 2014 campaign.
However, as Tate slowed down the stretch, Arizona lost four of its final five, including a squandered halftime lead vs. rival Arizona State, and a nail-biter to Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl. That downturn after a promising resurgence paled in significance to what followed in the early weeks of January, as the Arizona athletic department fired head coach Rich Rodriguez amid allegations of misconduct and a lawsuit filed by a former staffer.
Rodriguez's sudden ouster led to the hire of Kevin Sumlin, the former Houston and Texas A&M head coach whose brand of up-tempo football should translate well in the Sonoran Desert. Sumlin takes over with a veteran roster, led by a quarterback whose skill set appears tailor-made for the coach's style.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona's Spring Practice
1. Khalil football
An immediate comparison to draw between Sumlin's new job and his previous was that in both instances, his first team featured quarterbacks with unique, dual-threat ability. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy under Sumlin at Texas A&M in 2012 blending uncanny field vision, explosive ball-carrying, and a rifle arm. Sumlin now inherits a roster with Khalil Tate, who set the record for FBS quarterback rushing yards in 2017 with 1,411.
And lest Tate be confused for a one-trick playmaker, he produced 301 yards and five touchdowns through the air in his final outing of the season.
Tate played his way into the Heisman conversation for a spell a season ago. He should be right back in the hunt if he acclimates to the system Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone bring over from Texas A&M.
2. Defensive progress
Year 1 of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' scheme saw Arizona go through some necessary growing pains. Yates — one of the holdovers from Rodriguez's staff now with Sumlin — switched the Wildcats from a 3-3-5 stack that emphasized speed, to a 5-2 look reliant on a heavier pass rush. Arizona showed improvement in Year 2, but Year 3 is when the Wildcats need to take the next step if they're to contend in the Pac-12 South.
Yates relied on several youngsters to play prominent roles a season ago. Defensive lineman Kylan Wilborn and linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler led the Wildcats in sacks and tackles for a loss. Fields, Schooler and Lorenzo Burns set the pace for tackles. All four were freshmen.
A more experienced defense in 2018 should translate to positive things for the Arizona defense, but the Wildcats need to establish depth behind the returning starters. Spring practices will be crucial to that end, particularly on the defensive line; a decided weakness for Arizona for several years running.
3. Retooled running back rotation
Though Tate garnered the majority of headlines, Arizona's 309.3 yards per game rushing offense (No. 3 in the nation) flourished in large part due to a three-man running-back rotation. J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson split feature-back responsibilities, while Zach Green handled short-yardage and goal-line packages.
Wilson and Green graduated, leaving Taylor as the team's proven commodity. His explosiveness and ability to catch passes out of the backfield (two receiving touchdowns in 2017) are reminiscent of former UCLA back Paul Perkins, who flourished under Mazzone. However, at just 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, Taylor may not have the size to endure the punishment of a 250-carry season.
Texas A&M split carries among Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford a season ago, and Arizona will presumably do the same. Spring is time for celebrated 2017 signee Nathon Tilford, who averaged a staggering 9.3 yards per carry on limited touches, to emerge.
4. Offensive line
An offense doesn't put up the kind of numbers Arizona averaged in 2017 without great skill position players, but no unit loses as much on the Wildcats’ roster in ‘18 as its front five. Gone is tackle Jacob Alsadek as well as Gerhard de Beer.
Offensive line play was a strength for much of Sumlin's tenure at Texas A&M, with three Aggies going in the first round of the NFL draft — Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Germain Ifedi. Arizona returns one cornerstone of that unit from a season ago, Layth Friekh, but will undergo a facelift in the months leading to the season opener.
5. Springtime swag
Arizona has long been known as a basketball school, with football taking a backseat in Tucson. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of Rodriguez's departure, Kevin Sumlin's arrival brings excitement and a swagger Wildcats football has struggled to maintain since the Desert Swarm era.
This spring helps set the tone for a new era with a prominent head coach and the program's most nationally recognized offensive player since Trung Canidate paced the 1998 team to the best season in UA history. Tate's call to Arizona fans to pack the stadium in the fall joins a campaign with billboards of Sumlin plastered around the state.
(Top photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics, courtesy of arizonawildcats.com)