The 2018 Arizona football campaign ended earlier than expected with a heartbreaking 41-40 defeat in the Territorial Cup. ASU managed to score 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, ensuring that the trophy would stay in Tempe for a second consecutive year. The Sun Devils' improbable come-from-behind victory also extinguished the Wildcats' quest for bowl eligibility.
There will be plenty of time to discuss where Arizona went wrong in head coach Kevin Sumlin’s first season at the helm, as well as ample opportunity to point out how the ‘Cats can shorten the divide amongst themselves and the Pac-12’s elite performers between now and next fall. In the meantime, there are several players worthy of special recognition.
Arizona’s unsung heroes helped bring this team within striking distance of competing for a division title, despite never really forming a consistent identity. The 2018 season will largely be remembered for the team’s inherently frustrating inconsistencies. That’s why these players' performances were so vital to the ‘Cats overall success on a weekly basis. Listed below are the guys that made an irreplaceable impact all year long.
Team MVP – J.J. Taylor, RS sophomore, running back
2018 season stats: 255 carries, 1,434-yards rushing, 5.6 yards per carry, 2,107 all-purpose yards, 7 total touchdowns
Taylor’s game reached new heights this season. After bursting onto the scene in 2017 in a shared backfield role, Taylor shouldered the majority of carries for the Wildcats this year. His production was mind-boggling throughout the ‘Cats' 12-game schedule. Taylor accumulated more than 150 yards from scrimmage in five games. Even more incredibly, he totaled 100 all-purpose yards 10 different times. The diminutive scat-back displayed his toughness between the tackles and ability to make defenders miss on a weekly basis.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Taylor’s game was the workload that he proved more than capable of handling. Taylor touched the football 20 times in nine of the ‘Cats' 12 games. He tallied more than 25 carries on four separate occasions. Although he’s not the biggest ball carrier, he assumed his role as Arizona’s bell-cow back with confidence and a knack for creating chunk-plays.
Even though Khalil Tate wasn’t featured as a running option this season – teams knew to key in on Taylor by midseason – Taylor managed to continually make opposing defenses pay for underestimating his skill-set. He even starred as a kick return specialist before having to lessen his monstrous workload to some degree.
Taylor was far and away the most dynamic player on an Arizona offense that underperformed for much of the season, but his one knock came back to haunt him when the ‘Cats' season was on the line. The primary area that Taylor has to improve in before his junior crusade is taking care of the football. He coughed up the rock seven times in 2018, five of which he lost.
Offensive Player of the Year – Shawn Poindexter, RS senior, wide receiver
2018 season stats: 42 receptions, 759 yards, 11 touchdowns
Poindexter finished his college career with a bang. The rangy senior receiver evolved into a true No.1 threat for Tate down the team’s final stretch. He kicked off the 2018 campaign with a strong showing in the first four matchups, tallying 16 catches for 369 yards and two scores. Poindexter struggled to produce in three of the ‘Cats' contests halfway through the year, but managed to bounce back in memorable fashion with the season seemingly crumbling away.
In Arizona’s last five games, Poindexter hauled in 18 catches for 313 yards and an astounding nine touchdowns. In three consecutive games, he was on the receiving end of just two passes, both of which resulted in parties in the end zone. Poindexter’s sudden ascension came after relatively quiet seasons over the last two years.
His 2018 season totals nearly doubled all of his previous career marks and make his former lone touchdown grab that much more lonely.
This year, Poindexter flashed elite ability to high point the football and bring down contested catches. Although he’s not the fastest athlete on the field, Poindexter often found himself in position to make a play on 50-50 balls thrown his way. His 11th touchdown reception of the season came in the first half against ASU, when he corralled arguably his best catch of the season, mossing a defender in the back corner of the end zone.
That highlight reel play also stenciled his name into the UA record books, tying Arizona’s single-season mark for touchdown catches. Poindexter’s career as a Wildcat may have ended sooner than he would have liked, but thanks to his stellar 2018 performances, he’ll likely find scouts interested at the next level.
Defensive Player of the Year – Colin Schooler, sophomore, linebacker
2018 season stats: 119 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions
Schooler followed up his Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year campaign with an even more stupendous sophomore season. Arizona’s heralded defensive star was on an absolute tear to begin the year, compiling 66 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 1 interception in the ‘Cats first six games.
Arizona’s defense was completely dependent on Schooler’s fiery play for most of the year, but eventually Marcel Yates’ unit did acquire some other capable playmakers. Still, Schooler performed at an elite level. In road games against Oregon State, UCLA and Washington State, Schooler tallied 21 solo stops, 9.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 2.5 sacks.
His ability to make plays from all over the field – whether it is in pass coverage, in the backfield or chasing a play down from behind – separates him from some of the other top linebackers in the conference. Schooler’s performance this year proves that his breakout season in 2017 wasn’t a fluke, unlike another former freshman star linebacker (Tony Fields II). Instead it was the start of what is well on its way to becoming one of the ‘Cats' most storied defensive careers.
Although Schooler eclipsed most of his marks from last season, the national media will likely forget to honor his feats because of how porous Arizona’s defense was throughout the year. Hopefully, with reinforcements along the defensive line and in the secondary, the ‘Cats will be able to build around their defensive centerpiece for 2019.
Newcomer of the Year – Josh McCauley, RS sophomore, center
2018 season stats: Started all 12 games, anchored offensive line ranked No. 25 in the nation in total offense, No. 37 in the nation in rushing offense
McCauley valiantly filled the void of pre-season Rimington Award watch-list center Nathan Eldridge this year. Although Eldridge’s absence has yet to be fully explained, McCauley’s consistency up front helped alleviate some of the pressure that naturally surrounds a young and inexperienced offensive line.
Entering the 2018 season, McCauley had only briefly appeared in a backup role in a handful of games. However, that didn’t prevent him from quickly taking over the most important position on the football field. Arizona’s offensive line struggled to make ends meet when starting left tackle Layth Friekh was sidelined to start the year, but McCauley’s presence in the middle paid dividends quicker than most anticipated.
In the second game of the season, against Houston, McCauley generated some social media fame by nonchalantly slapping the helmet of potential top-10 pick Ed Oliver when he appeared to jump offside. In week three, McCauley anchored an offensive line that inflicted 626 yards of total offense.
The following week, he led the unit that paved the way for Arizona to rush for 442 yards on 51 carries. By season’s end, McCauley was partially responsible for the success of an offense that exceeded 500 yards from scrimmage on six different occasions. His strength and quickness at the point of attack were instrumental to the ‘Cats' offensive success.
Most importantly, McCauley rarely made mistakes. He was consistent in snapping the football when Tate aligned in shotgun and was perfect when his quarterback moved in under center. It will be interesting to see how McCauley’s role changes next season, if at all. The bottom-line is that his 12-game performance was impressive enough to make most UA fans forget about the vacancy left behind by Eldridge.
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