Editor's note: This commentary was produced as part of the Daily Wildcat's 2018 Campus Guide -- the perfect resource for any incoming Wildcat. Whether you're trying to find important dates, looking for a club to join or are interested in UA history and traditions, we'll be there to help you get through your first semester. Welcome to the University of Arizona!
Kevin Sumlin is no stranger to immediate success coaching at a new school. In 2008, the former Oklahoma Sooners co-offensive coordinator accepted the head coach position at the University of Houston. In his first season at the helm, Sumlin lead the Cougars to their first bowl victory since 1980, ending the longest bowl game losing streak at that time.
Four years later, after posting an admirable 35-17 record and a pair of Conference USA championship game berths, Sumlin headed two hours north to College Station. Inheriting a dynamic playmaker at the quarterback position and a slew of future NFL prospects across the board, Sumlin’s second stint as a head coach was electric. In 2012, the Texas A&M Aggies took the SEC by storm, becoming the first team in SEC history to total over 7,000 yards from scrimmage. Sumlin’s high-powered spread offense fit freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel to a tee.
Now, Sumlin has settled in the desert and is preparing to kick-start his third head coaching stint. There’s no reason why he should have any less success at the University of Arizona than he had in the Lone Star state.
With rising junior signal-caller Khalil Tate returning to lead the Wildcats offense and the development of several key offensive and defensive standouts, Arizona appears primed to make progress in leaps and bounds. In fact, they've already begun.
Since being hired in January, Sumlin has taken no time off. Whether it’s actively recruiting in Texas, where he maintains plenty of ties, or transforming the environment that previous head coach Rich Rodriguez left behind, Sumlin has worked tirelessly to prepare his team for its week-one matchup against Brigham Young University.
Looking ahead to the entirety of Arizona’s 2018 football schedule, and delving into the Pac-12’s top contenders, it’s hard to short Sumlin of things that he has proven he is capable of achieving, time and time again.
It’s not far-fetched to expect Arizona to compete for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game this soon. The Wildcats boast the nation’s most elusive quarterback, a pair of freshman All-American linebackers, and several more potential breakout stars on both sides of the ball. Anything less than 9 wins this season should be considered a disappointment.
After the program posted a measly 7-6 record last season, Sumlin’s arrival has resurrected the faith of football fans in the Old Pueblo.
Ball carriers like J.J. Taylor, Anthony Mariscal, and Nathan Tilford will need to alleviate some of the pressure off of Tate by making plays of their own. Fifth-year lineman Layth Friekh will be tasked with leading the other young bulls up front, and redshirt senior receiver Shawn Poindexter will need to provide elite jump ball ability outside.
Although teams will have spent all week preparing to contain Tate, it’s impossible to take away his gamer mentality. In other words, teams will likely try to focus on eliminating Tate’s presence in the run game, but there’s nothing they’ll be able to do when he blossoms as a passer and scorches the secondary over the top.
Nobody was shocked when Sumlin accepted Arizona’s vacant head coaching gig because nobody is better equipped to help Tate reach his full potential as a quarterback.
With a potentially terrifying offense intact, it's time that Arizona’s defense is held to just as high of a standard. Third-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates – reunited with Sumlin after serving as a co-coordinator at Texas A&M from 2012-13 – has continually revamped the Wildcats defense. After fielding numerous true freshmen in 2017, and struggling to recruit size in the defensive line, Arizona is closer than ever to returning to formidable defensive form.
Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler surprised opposing offenses last season with quick play recognition and a knack for creating turnovers. Now with a year under their belts and increased strength and speed, they should be a step ahead of the opposition.
Cornerbacks Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns aren’t the biggest defenders, but they’ve both demonstrated elite coverage skills and the ability to provide support in the run game. Safeties Jarrius Wallace, Troy Young, and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles each had their moments last season but will need to be more consistent if Arizona wants to compete against run-and-gun teams like Oregon, UCLA, and Washington State.
Arizona will likely find its most difficult test along the defensive line each week. In recent years opposing teams have abused the undersized and lesser athletes filling roles that should have been assumed by big-time recruits who either never suited up in red and blue or never developed into the players they were identified to be. Although there were times last season when Arizona’s quicker defensive ends utilized their speed to pressure the quarterback or chase down ball carriers from behind, there were far too many instances where defensive linemen were pushed back and into the laps of their teammates.
If Yates can determine a solid rotation of five to eight players up front, it will allow the Wildcats to get off the field on third down and get the ball back into Tate’s hands. There’s nothing more demoralizing to a defense than being pounded on for four quarters, especially when it’s evident that the group of defenders out there aren’t capable of getting off the field.
When all is said and done, this season will likely be judged by the offensive success that Sumlin may or may not be able to replicate. However, there’s no denying that the chess pieces are already in place. Now it’s just a matter of making the right move at the right time.
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