Arizona Football has several key returning players on both sides of the ball, but there are just as many inexperienced players working to fill significant roles. Here’s a quick look at likely key contributors from each class whose performance throughout the season could dictate success or mediocrity for Sumlin’s squad in 2018.
Redshirt Freshman – No. 1 Drew Dixon – Wide Receiver – 6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds
2016 Stats (At Sabino HS): 112 carries, 901 yards rushing, 47 receptions, 564 yards receiving, 35 total touchdowns
In 2017, Dixon redshirted, spending the season playing on the scout team and adding weight to his lanky frame. This year he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a role catching passes out-wide. Arizona’s receiving corps isn’t as deep as in years prior, nor does it have a true No.1 threat on the edge, which bodes well for Dixon’s playing time.
Dixon offers the Wildcats much-needed size and jump-ball ability. If Dixon is able to take the next step in his game and see the field on Saturdays, he will become another weapon on a team looking to pass more this season.
Fifth-year receiver Shawn Poindexter has blossomed into one of Arizona’s top targets, likely because of his length and chemistry with Khalil Tate. Dixon provides the Wildcats with a similar size advantage. If the coaching staff feels comfortable enough with Dixon’s physicality getting off the line of scrimmage, then expect to see No. 1 catching passes on offense this season.
Sophomore – No. 1 Tony Fields II – Linebacker – 6 feet 1 inch, 230 pounds
2017 Stats: 104 total tackles (team high), 5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception
Last season it was hard to find a more dominant freshman duo than linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II. Schooler ended up taking home more of the hardware, but Fields II’s 2017 contributions have not been overlooked.
Fields started every game for Arizona as linebacker, a rarity for a freshman, and by season’s end he had evolved into one of Arizona’s defensive leaders. With 104 tackles, he exceeded the performance of any UA freshman in over 20 years and ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision among all defensive freshmen.
From aligning the front line to signaling in coverage and pressures, Fields II flourished as the “quarterback” of the Wildcats’ defense. In 2017, Fields revealed his instincts to make plays from sideline to sideline and in opponent play recognition. He should continue to be one of the first helmets to the ball this fall.
“What’s the ceiling? I hope there is no ceiling,” Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates said of the combination of Fields and Schooler.
Redshirt Sophomore – No. 21 J.J. Taylor – Running Back – 5 feet 6 inches, 184 pounds
2017 Stats: 847 rushing yards, 7 total touchdowns
Taylor’s role in 2018 will be instrumental to Arizona’s offensive success. Last season the diminutive running back flashed a quick burst out of the backfield, finishing second on the team in rushing yards. This season, due to the departure of senior co-stars Nick Wilson and Zach Green, Taylor should see an increase in playing time, as well as production.
In 2017 Taylor completed a pair of rushing performances of 100 yards. With an uptick in offensive involvement, that number should increase this year. The biggest question each week will be whether or not Taylor can handle the majority of running back totes.
Other ball carriers, namely Nathan Tilford and Gary Brightwell, will look for valuable touches out of the backfield. Both are more imposing, physically, than Taylor.
In order to further distinguish himself from the competition, Taylor says he has been working on reaching that next gear since the end of last season. There were several instances in 2017 when he was tackled from behind just yards away from the goal line. Taylor will be the go-to back in 2018 if he can capitalize in the open field and finish his runs in the end zone.
Junior – No. 14 Khalil Tate – Quarterback – 6 feet 2 inches, 215 pounds
2017 Stats: 62 percent completion, 1,591 yards passing, 1,411 yards rushing, 9.2 yards per carry, 26 total touchdowns
Tate set the bar high for himself in 2017. Now, in his first full season as Arizona’s starting quarterback, he’ll look to confirm what many are already thinking: the Wildcats have a Heisman contender under center.
A year older and a year wiser, Tate’s journey appears to be headed towards a climax of sorts in 2018. With Kevin Sumlin at the helm in his first year as head coach and new Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone mentoring Tate, the Wildcats’ star quarterback is primed to have a monstrous junior campaign.
Although there will be several new bodies protecting Tate up front, the offensive line’s centerpiece, center Nathan Eldridge, remains intact. This season Tate said he will look more frequently to dissect defenses through the air.
The Wildcats’s offensive success may depend more on Tate’s individual performance than on the performance of players in any other position, but that’s exactly the way it should be when a player of Tate’s caliber lines up in the backfield. He’s a game-changer, and the Wildcats will be counting on him to deliver in 2018.
Redshirt Junior – No. 52 PJ Johnson – Defensive Tackle – 6 feet 4 inches, 335 pounds
2017 Stats (At City College of San Francisco): 17 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble
There might not be another player positioned to make as big of an impact in his first year with the Wildcats as PJ Johnson. The junior-college transfer dwarfs several of his defensive line teammates and is an immediate upgrade for Arizona’s weakest position group.
Johnson’s presence will certainly boost one of the Pac-12’s worst rushing defenses. His size and strength alone may be enough to require double-teams and to force opposing offenses to avoid the middle of the Wildcat defense. Johnson also boasts a toolbox of pass-rush moves and hand-fighting techniques that will make him a valuable asset on third down.
Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates has been preaching the importance of an improved run defense for the duration of the off-season. With Johnson manning the nose or lined up in a 3-technique, the Wildcats hope to see an improvement in that department.
Senior – No. 17 Jace Whittaker – Cornerback – 5 feet 11 inches, 189 pounds
2017 Stats: 13 pass break-ups (team high), 3 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 46 total tackles
Whittaker is one of the Wildcats’ most experienced defenders. After demonstrating a knack for the big-play in 2017 Whittaker could have his most efficient season yet. Based on his performance last season, Pro Football Focus ranked Whittaker as the Wildcats’s highest-rated returning player ahead of the season; now it’s up to the senior to live up to the hype.
Despite playing for his third defensive backs coach in four years, Whittaker said this off-season that he feels comfortable with his role in Arizona’s defense. The feisty cover-corner has shown growth with ball skills over the last three seasons and he’s made strides as a tackler in the open field. The Wildcats will rely on Whittaker’s experience in the secondary in 2018.
Redshirt Senior – No. 58 Layth Friekh – Offensive Line – 6 feet 5 inches, 297 pounds
2017 Stats: Started all 13 games at LT and anchored 3rd-ranked rushing offense in nation, averaging 309.3 yards per game
Friekh has been a stalwart along Arizona’s offensive line since starting nine contests in 2015. Although he’ll be absent for the Wildcats’ first two games this season, Friekh should return to the lineup in week three without missing a beat, having gained an extra year of eligibility.
When he does return to action against Southern Utah, Friekh will look to reestablish his dominance as Tate’s personal protector. Arizona is at its best on the ground when the offensive line eliminates the first line of defense and reaches the second level. Friekh’s athleticism allows him to double down on defensive tackles before putting his foot in the ground to drive block the nearest linebacker. During his absence, the Wildcats will be tested, especially in week two versus the Houston Cougars, led by Ed Oliver.
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