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Duck Dive: Arizona Football Preview

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Going deep with the Wildcats’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first in an offseason series examining each of the Pac-12 teams. These will combine my film study of Oregon’s opponents from last year, a review of departing and incoming personnel, and podcast interviews with publishers from around the conference to hopefully provide a more in-depth look at each team than typical previews.

Thanks to Bryant Conger of WildcatRadioAZ.com for his insights into the Arizona team, be sure to listen to our podcast for even more detail as well as some larger discussion on the direction of Arizona’s program, the basketball events in the news, and a lot more.


Offense - #43 in S&P+

Arizona returns their star #14 QB Tate, who elected to stay in school for his senior year. For six weeks in 2017, Tate was the most electric player in the country, rushing for over 1,200 yards in that stretch at over 12 yards per carry. Opposing defenses figured him out in the last three games of that year, however, and between a leg injury and a new offensive scheme under OC Mazzone in 2018, he hasn’t been nearly as productive since.

Passing Offense

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

When I was doing my film study of Arizona prior to their matchup with Oregon last year, the Wildcats had pulled Tate to heal up and played #4 QB Rodriguez (son of the former coach) instead. I thought Rodriguez’s limitations in terms of size and arm strength were clear, but ironically he seems like a much better fit for the new offense. Mazzone has been around the conference for a long time -- a year at OSU, two at ASU, and four at UCLA -- and it strikes me his philosophy is to use spread concepts to run an efficiency (as opposed to explosion) based offense, with lots of swings, bubble screens, and short timing passes.

I don’t think Tate is a great fit with that scheme, since his inclination is to take deep shots down the field and run for it when there’s nothing open. It’ll be interesting to see how that clash plays out in 2019, hopefully with a healthy QB. Rodriguez is a junior this year and the fact that Arizona played Tate as long as they did and returned him to the field as quickly as possible indicates to me he’s no threat to Tate’s position, and the rest of the QB room are freshmen. There’s some talent there and one of them might supplant Rodriguez as the primary backup by the end of the year, but I don’t think Tate is in any jeopardy and I doubt he feels much competitive pressure this offseason.

The problem is whom he’s going to be throwing it to. Arizona has lost its four top receivers from 2018 - #19 WR Poindexter, #6 WR S. Brown, #9 WR Ellison, and most recently #7 WR D. Cooper due to dismissal this month. Those four combined for over 2,300 receiving yards last year, more than ¾ of the passing production. The two returners with any significant yards -- #18 WR Peterson and #86 WR Berryhill -- strike me as utility players at best, and it’s especially curious that Berryhill (who’s 5’9” fresh out of bed) was playing out of the Y most of last year.

As far as I can tell there’s only one 4-star receiver on the team, true freshman early enrollee #2 WR Curry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the top receiver on the team since the rest of the corps are either freshmen 3-stars or returners who couldn’t crack the two-deep on an underperforming unit last year.

One thing that should be noted, however, is that Arizona has definitely identified a need for taller receivers - I count six scholarship WRs listed as 6’2” or better recruited in the last two cycles.

Rushing Offense

Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The strength of this team is in its backs, #21 RB Taylor, #23 RB Brightwell, and #20 RB Smith - they combined for over 2,000 rushing yards last year at over 5.5 yards per carry. There’s not much to elaborate on here; I think this is the best trio of backs in the conference.

What might be problematic is the blocking. I noticed in film study last year that they’re more successful bouncing outside than up the middle, behind some solid blocking from their wide receivers. But every WR I have in my notes as showing above average blocking abilities has departed, and I don’t know what the freshman are going to bring to the table here - usually WRs require some time in the weight room to become really effective perimeter blockers at the Power-5 level.

I’m also interested to see how the offensive line shakes out. Possibly the most important loss the Wildcats suffered last season was their OL coach Michalczik -- one of the best position coaches in the conference -- going to Oregon St (returning, actually; he was the OL/TE coach there when Coach Smith was quarterback). He took with him #64 OG Eldridge, who sat out 2018 with injury and was primed for a big season with the Wildcats until he transferred to Corvallis. They’ve also lost starters #58 LT Friekh and #75 LG Eletise (one of Arizona’s few 4-stars), and backup #70 RG Lukusa.

I believe the starting lineup will be #78 LT Laie, #50 C McCauley, #54 OL Cain, #76 OL Creason, and either one of the two Juco transfers, #56 OL Donovan or #74 OL Fears. The first four got extensive starting experience last year due to some midseason injuries. I wasn’t too impressed with the 2018 line when I did film study of them last year, and I suspect at least two guys who play in 2019 will be former walk-ons. But there’s enough experience there that I think they’ll be alright … unless they have to deal with some injuries, in which case it might get dicey. There’s just not much depth here.


Defense - #74 in S&P+

The defense usually played out of the nickel for most of last year, with either a 4-2 or a 3-3 front, usually a STUD backer on one side and a SPUR safety on the other. The good news for DC Yates is that in his third year Arizona’s defensive S&P+ jumped by 27 ranks. The bad news is that it was from #101 in 2017 (and #88 in 2016). Outside of a pair of linebackers I really like, there’s not much talent here and I don’t think it’s going to get better in 2019.

Defensive Front

USC v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

I wasn’t too impressed with their defensive front in last year’s film study, but on the bright side they’re bringing back almost everyone from that group. The problem is the two guys they lost are arguably the most important: #99 DT Boles and #52 DT PJ Johnson (to Detroit). Coach Sumlin has surprised me by recruiting just one defensive tackle in his two cycles in Tucson; he presently has only two scholarship DTs on the entire roster after dismissing another this month, and those two combined for fewer than 10 solo tackles last year. He brought in a pair of 3-star Juco DTs this year, Mason and Tapusoa, and I’d expect at least one of them to start given their measurables, but neither played in the Spring game and I don’t even know their jersey numbers yet.

In 2017 Arizona had the remarkable distinction of playing three true freshmen All-Americans at linebacker. #1 LB Fields and #7 LB Schooler have lived up to the billing, but I thought #14 LB Wilborn, mostly playing on the outside, had a disappointing 2018 with only 14 total tackles. There’s some interesting pieces here on the outside, #12 LB JB Brown and #49 LB Harris, but they combined for fewer than half the tackles Schooler alone had in 2018, and I saw them letting a lot of backs through for the safeties to deal with in film study.

Secondary

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

I wasn’t wild about the secondary in 2018 film study, but they are at least bringing back a full set of five DBs with a lot of experience: #2 CB Burns, #3 DB Wallace, #6 S Young, #17 CB Whittaker, and #31 S T. Cooper. My concern is that there’s very little in terms of experienced, talented depth behind them.

There’s been a mass exodus of players here: four-year starter #6 S Flannigan-Fowles, #8 CB Hough (a former Oregon transfer target) to dismissal last fall, and four more secondary players transferred out after the season - two were backups but the other two, #20 CB Hearn and #21 S Hayes, got a lot of playing time. That’s a pretty big hit to the depth chart.


Personal Note

The day after we recorded with Bryant, we received word that longtime Arizona coach — and still the winningest in Wildcat history — Dick Tomey had died. He provided stability and success to a school that was still going through its sometimes rocky transition from the WAC to the Pac-8 after his predecessor left for USC. His Arizona teams with their aggressive Desert Swarm defense were some of my favorites to watch. The high point was no doubt his 12-1 season in 1998, culminating in a close, hard-fought win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl - fittingly, decided by an interception.

Dick Tomey was 80 years old. He will be missed.