Arizona Wildcats facing several hurdles before the start of fall camp
The beginning of the Pac-12 football season is just four and a half weeks away. That start date alone is enough for any team to have its concerns about being ready in time for week one. But for the Arizona Wildcats, that is just one of the many obstacles this team will have to face this year.
Arizona begins its fall camp on Friday, Oct. 9, but they might be doing so without their head coach Kevin Sumlin after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, Oct. 5. Sumlin entered immediate self-isolation and has not experienced any symptoms up to this point. Sumlin also plans on being with the team virtually until he makes a full recovery but has not ruled out the possibility of getting back to the practice field by the end of this week.
“We’re having that discussion, Dr. [Stephen] Paul and I, here later this week,” Sumlin said. “We’ll see where I’m at here by this weekend.”
Sumlin has since used this unfortunate situation as a learning experience as he continued to stress the importance of never being too careful.
“This thing is serious,” he said. “No matter what precautions you have, you have to be extremely aggressive about your protection, about your health as well as others. … You cannot be too careful, you just can’t.”
Battling a pandemic isn’t the only thing that the Wildcats have had to worry about this offseason. A year of uncertainty and social injustice have been on the minds of every player and coach up to this point.
“It’s not just the season, I think it’s everything that’s happened over the last seven months,” Sumlin said. “From social unrest, to pandemic, to ‘Are we playing? Are we not playing? Is it safe?’ There are so many factors and the fact that, for the first time really, a lot of guys are taking classes online from last spring so it’s a completely different set of circumstances for these young people. ... A lot of things have happened that have taken a toll on our young people and I think we need to be sensitive to that.”
Field issues are on the mind of coach Sumlin as well. With 12 players entering the transfer portal and departing from the team this past offseason, including linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II, the Wildcats are now looking toward its returning players to step up and lead the way in 2020.
Expected starting quarterback Grant Gunnell is only in his second season with the team but Sumlin already views him as one of the cornerstone pieces on this roster. As a freshman, Gunnell threw for 1,239 passing yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception in 2019.
“When adverse situations arise, I think they reveal some people’s true character,” Sumlin said. “And how you handle those situations, even if you don’t have the experience in it, it becomes important and leadership becomes important. I think [Gunnell] has stepped forward and really done some things to grow and to help grow our team together during this offseason and during this difficult time. From a leadership standpoint, he’s made some serious strides over the last seven months.”
Arizona will also be leaning on its No. 1 wide receiver from last season, Jamarye Joiner, who is coming off a foot surgery at the end of last season. Joiner appeared in 12 games for the Wildcats in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards (552) and touchdown catches (5).
“He’s healed up pretty well,” Sumlin said. “I think he had a better than average year based on the fact that he didn’t play receiver until fall camp so I think it could be a breakout year for him. I think he’s worked hard at it and he’s going to continue to work hard at it.”
The other side of the ball is of most concern, and rightfully so. The Wildcats surrendered an average of 471.6 total yards and 35.8 points per game last season, the most of any defense that year in the Pac-12 in both statistics. With a new defensive coordinator and a whole new look on the defensive side of the ball following the transfers, Sumlin’s new goal for the defensive unit is to make the most of the guys he has left.
“We just have to get our best people on the field,” he said. “And with that, we’ve got to develop some depth. … Our goal is not just scheme but also to get our best players on the field to give us the best chance to win. And sometimes that seems like a simple statement, but it’s not, and we can’t be stubborn with that — getting the people on the field that help us play fast and play physical and play consistent on defense.”
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