Commentary: Arizona football fall camp preview
Here are three things to keep an eye on as Arizona’s first fall camp of the Kevin Sumlin era begins on Friday, Aug. 3.
1. How will the running back situtation shape up?
Arizona hasn’t had a 1,000-yard-rusher out of its backfield – not counting Khalil Tate - since Nick Wilson’s freshman campaign in 2014.
With the departure of Wilson and goal line back Zach Green, who were both seniors last season, Arizona’s backfield touches will largely be divvied up between J.J. Taylor and Nathan Tilford.
Gary Brightwell, Anthony Mariscal and Brandon Leon should also pepper in throughout the season to make contributions as change of pace ball carriers.
Last season Taylor toted the rock 146 times, trailing only Tate for the most rushes on the team. He nearly quadrupled his production from his freshman season, and flashed lethal breakaway ability on numerous occasions.
The biggest question heading into what could potentially be Taylor’s breakout season, is does he have the durability to handle 200-plus carries? If not, other runners will need to step up and spell Taylor. The likeliest candidate to do so would be former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford.
In minimal game-action in 2017, Tilford gave Wildcat fans yet another reason to be excited for the future.
Logging just 13 carries over the course of the season — performing primarily on special teams — Tilford posted an average of 9.3-yards per carry. Standing at 6’2 and 205 pounds, Tilford has the frame to withstand punishing blows for four quarters – a legitimate concern for the smaller Taylor.
Tilford will consciously need to improve his center of gravity as he races through running lanes, at times he approaches contact too high, but all of the intangibles are there to become a reliable backfield weapon in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.
2. Will bigger bodies up front translate to more defensive success?
Last season, Arizona’s defense allowed an average of 286 yards per game through the air. Opponents nearly matched those totals on the ground, routinely gashing the Wildcats front-seven.
The freshmen trifecta of Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II, and Kylan Wilborn saved Arizona’s defense from complete annihilation last season. That simply can’t be the case this year if the Wildcats are interested in competing for a Pac-12 Championship.
It all starts up front with the guys with their hands in the dirt.
Dereck Boles and Finton Connolly are two players that will look to carve out integral roles along Arizona’s interior defensive line. However, their stamina and inability to continuously create penetration will provoke problems for Marcel Yates’ defense if depth up-front is anything close to last season.
If the Cats want to get over the hump defensively, and instill a sense of fear into the opposition, they’ll need to find a quality rotation of five to eight defensive linemen capable of holding their ground.
Junior College transfers PJ Johnson and Sione Taufahema are two guys who might fit the bill. Both are redshirt juniors and topple the scale, weighing 335-plus pounds each.
3. Has Khalil Tate developed precision in the intermediate passing game, or will he continue to rely heavily on his elusiveness as a ball carrier?
Perhaps the Heisman hopeful can do both.
In order for Tate to propel himself to the next stage of his career, he’ll need to become a more polished passer. He’s already demonstrated possessing a cannon for an arm; now it’s a matter of executing the offense based upon what the defense is giving him.
Against Arizona’s toughest opponents last season (USC and Oregon) Tate tried to force things rather than making the correct reads and trusting his teammates. Despite having his way with every other Pac-12 opponent, Tate couldn’t seem to get things going against superb athletes and open-field tacklers when his option to run was taken away early in the down.
In his first full season as the team’s unquestioned starting quarterback, Tate will need to do a better job of exposing every level of the defense. That means going through his progressions in the pocket and locating his receivers in very small windows.
There certainly hasn’t been any criticism of Tate’s arm strength, last season he made defenders pay for overcompensating for his knack to takeoff and run, but improved accuracy in the intermediate passing game is a priority for Arizona’s offense to reach the next level.
If Tate develops as a passer, and begins to attack defenses with both his arm and legs, there’s no telling how far he can lead this team.
Imagine former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson’s production at Louisville over the last two seasons and realize that could be what happens in Tucson if Tate can reach the next level.
Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone know exactly the type of player Tate has the potential to become. It’ll be a group project to help him get there.
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