Column: The time is now for Arizona football

Carmen Valencia | The Daily Wildcat Khalil Tate stares onto the field and watches Arizona defense push against strong USC offense.

Rarely do stars align in the way they could for Arizona football this year. 

A star quarterback, a new head coach with a winning track record and an athletic defense equal the chance for a season that could be talked about for years to come in Tucson.

However, key components will only be in alignment for a short time, and the Wildcats can’t afford to waste the opportunity that sits in front of them. 

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Khalil Tate enters the season with more hype than any Arizona quarterback in recent memory. Sports Illustrated could have picked other Heisman-hopeful quarterbacks, like Will Grier at West Virginia University or University of Oregon’s dual-threat QB Justin Herbert, to be the face of their annual college football preview issue, but SI went with Tate. 

That choice speaks volumes, not only for Tate’s dynamic ability but also for the national focus on Arizona’s football program.

Khalil Tate took college football by storm becoming the first quarterback in Pac-12 history to rush for 1,000 yards. He was also in the conversation for the most prestigous award for any position, the Heisman Trophy.

Now the junior quarterback is paired with head coach Kevin Sumlin, a man who averaged 8.5 wins per year in the SEC over the last six seasons. Sumlin will be paraded down University Boulevard if he can average that with Arizona. 

Sumlin has also worked with his share of elite college quarterbacks over the years, including Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Johnny Manziel. You can bet there will be a system in place that is geared toward maximizing Tate’s skill set. 

There’s plenty to like about UA’s defense, too, even though it ranked 10th in yards yielded per game in the Pac-12 Conference last year.

The Wildcats played four true freshman on the defensive line in 2017. Those “babies”, according to defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, have beefed up and are ready to fill in the gaps. 

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Colin Schooler, the Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year for 2017, returns as does linebacker Kylan Wilborn, who was called “one of the best defensive players” in the conference by an anonymous Pac-12 coach this offseason. And don’t forget about experienced seniors like safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and cornerback Jace Whittaker. 

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Arizona's J.J. Taylor weaves through Oregon State defense on Nov. 11 at Arizona Stadium.

While the University of Southern California and the University of Utah are both prominent contenders in the Pac-12 South Division, the opening of the season comes with no definitive stand-out. 

The ingredients are there for the Wildcats to make some noise in 2018. However, it remains to be seen if they can take advantage of their position and create a season worth remembering. After all, success has a funny way of appearing suddenly and then vanishing before it can make an impact. 

Just look back at the 2014 season when Arizona surprised the nation and won 10 games en route to the Pac-12 South Title. That was supposed to be the launching pad for perennial conference championship contention. How quickly times change.

For this season of Arizona football, there must be a sense of urgency from the start. Arizona could find itself in a very different scenario next fall: Tate may very well decide to enter the NFL Draft in 2019, and Sumlin’s most successful season at his previous school came in the first year when he won 11 games. 

Arizona has a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12 South this year AND have its first Heisman winner in program history. That’s a combination that’s been foreign to Tucsonans for quite some time. 

Such opportunities don’t come often, and the time is now for the Wildcats to run with it.

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