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Duck Dive: Arizona Football 2020 Preview

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

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Special thanks to Bryant Conger of @12PacRadio for visiting the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss/lament the Arizona roster. You can check out the episode HERE!


Arizona went 4-8 in 2019, and that really was their ceiling because none of their losses were particularly close. It was a culmination of a couple years of counterproductive QB play, an incompetent defensive staff, and poor recruiting under head coach Sumlin.

The recruiting’s still a problem, but the QB and DC are gone and almost certainly for the better. The Wildcats have some of the highest returning production percentages in the league (over 65% on offense and 70% on defense) and there’s plenty of reasons to believe that returning personnel will be employed better next season. I think if they had played their originally scheduled 2020 slate they’d finish at 5-7 with an outside shot at a bowl.

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Offense

In 2017, Arizona’s QB Khalil Tate ran for 1,411 yards at 9.2 yards per carry, and he wasn’t even the starter for the first four games. When carrying the ball, Tate had 71 successful plays given the down & distance vs 62 unsuccessful ones (sacks, TFLs, fumbles, and failed runs). Tate’s legs were Arizona’s greatest asset during the Wildcats’ 5-3 regular season finish.

In 2019, Tate had become a liability. He ran for almost exactly 1,000 fewer yards at half the average, and his success rate when carrying the ball flipped upside down, to 38 vs 50. He developed a bizarre habit of breaking the pocket, running backwards, and then stepping out of bounds for a big loss rather than throwing the ball away.

Space does not permit a detailed accounting of Tate’s flaws as a quarterback last year. Passer rating will have to suffice: of the 14 Pac-12 QBs who attempted at least 150 passes, Tate’s 131.0 was the third worst, barely ahead of a disappointing Steven Montez and an injury-ridden KJ Costello.

The silver lining is that Tate’s backup, #17 QB Gunnell, got extensive playing time as a true freshman, about a third of all snaps taken in 2019 including three starts. His passer rating was much higher, 150.2, behind only Anthony Gordon, Justin Herbert, Tyler Huntley, and Kedon Slovis in the Pac-12. I think he’s a better fit for OC Mazzone’s spread-for-efficiency offensive system:

There are a number of predictable freshman flaws in his game: he’s throwing with his pelvis instead of fully rotating and pointing his hips on quick throws which robs them of power, I’ve seen him take almost no deep shots and I’m unsure of his overall arm strength, he makes the wrong read in the run-option and RPO game about 12% of the time, and he breaks the pocket a little too readily. In the 53 dropbacks of his that I charted, 36% ended in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, although curiously, his success rate after breaking the pocket (59%) is slightly higher than when he stays in it (56%). I think it’s encouraging that he mostly keeps his eyes downfield when scrambling, though discouraging that he’s scrambling so much.

I think that’s probably a result of what a horrorshow the offensive line was for Arizona last year: in the seven games I charted, 10 different offensive linemen got at least 80 snaps each, and I think I missed an eleventh. Almost everybody on the o-line was injured at one point or another, although I also believe I was seeing new OL coach DeVan (a former Arizona and NFL o-lineman from a couple years ago, he spent the prior three years as Ball St’s OL coach) experimenting with different rotations to see what the players he inherited were made of.

That was painful to watch but probably necessary, because the raw talent here is possibly the lowest in the conference. Of the 11 guys who played, two were former walk-ons, one was a two-star, and the highest rated in the 24/7 composite was a .8746 (Cody Creason, who’s now graduated). The good news is all that rotation created a lot of playing experience and film for DeVan, who gets eight of those linemen back in 2020. The bad news is that their average recruiting rating was .8324 (a low 3-star), and that’s excluding the former walk-on who I believe will be their starting left guard. There are a couple of bright spots, notably #78 LT Laie and #50 C McCauley who were the only players who got under a 10% error rate on my tally sheet, but all things considered I don’t expect a big step forward for this unit.

After the 2018 season, Arizona lost all four of their top wide receivers. During that offseason when we talked to Bryant, he relayed that there’s an interesting transition going on between the shorter, shiftier WRs that former head coach Rich Rodriguez recruited and the taller, more talented guys that HC Sumlin got in his first two classes. I was expecting to see the latter really take over in 2019, but that didn’t happen at all: instead virtually all the targets went to the previous year’s backups, a Juco, two former walk-ons, and a converted QB.

In 2020 everybody except the second leading receiver, Cedric Peterson, returns from 2019. The converted QB, #10 WR Joiner, turned out to be a real bright spot, though I did notice a few route running problems and he had surgery for a broken foot suffered in the winter (his mother posted some cool/gross x-rays on twitter). Assuming he’s ready to play, I think he has an outside receiver spot locked up. I also think that the Juco slot receiver #11 WR Cunningham will continue as a starter, and I think the senior #5 WR Casteel has proven his worth as a utility receiver and sweep man.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Arizona at UCLA Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Beyond that though, I think Arizona is facing an identity crisis. There are two walk-ons I’ve been watching for years now, #86 WR Berryhill and #16 WR Reid, who simply baffle me as to why they get starts (Berryhill in particular, who’s been playing Z-receiver and is 5’10” if we’re being generous). There are five young receivers on the roster, all listed at about 6’3”, for whom I think this upcoming season is the make-or-break moment: #3 WR Adams, #2 WR Curry, #1 WR Dixon, #9 WR J. Johnson, and #82 WR Z. Williams (Curry really needs to show it, he’s one of only two 4-stars on the entire roster). Those five combined for 27 catches in 2019; that’s fewer than their starting RB caught. If none of those guys can cross the replacement-value threshold established by Berryhill and Reid, I think Arizona is going to be in trouble for years to come at the position.

The rushing attack has kept Arizona’s offense afloat for years, finishing #3 or better in the conference for seven of the last eight seasons (curiously, the exception was #5 in 2014, the year they won their division). They lose their top back, JJ Taylor, to the NFL, but return four more backs who each got at least 30 carries: #23 RB Brightwell, #20 RB Smith, #33 RB Tilford (the other 4-star), and #6 RB Wiley. Last year in film study I noted that everyone in this group is working overtime to make cutbacks and find alternate running lanes to compensate for the o-line issues:

Bryant and I agreed that Taylor was the master of this approach and so expect the returning backs, if the OL doesn’t improve, to probably be somewhat less productive though still pretty good - I charted their success rates on a per-play basis at 58.8% for Taylor and 56.6% for the rest. The raw stat sheet has a misleading yards per carry average for this unit, caused by a small number of explosive rushes that distort the picture: if we remove the longest run by each back from the sample, we get 4.63 YPC for Taylor and 4.29 YPC for the other four … in fact, a single 94-yd run by Brightwell against an FCS opponent raises the non-Taylor backs’ average by over half a yard per carry!

Arizona v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Defense

Arizona’s defense finished the year ranked #114 in SP+, and has ranked #74 or worse in seven of the last nine seasons. Given the low talent level, key personnel losses, and turnover of the entire defensive coaching staff this offseason, I can say with some confidence that it’s unlikely to suddenly become a top-40 squad. While any benefit from the DC change might take a while to realize, the crew of seasoned veteran assistants Sumlin hired should get some better play out of their returners sooner.

The unit hardest hit by personnel departures is the secondary. Since the advent of the transfer portal last year, 10 of Arizona’s scholarship DBs have entered it, including six this offseason headlined by longtime starting safety Scottie Young. I don’t know why this is, but it compounds the losses to graduation of starting DBs Tristan Cooper and Jace Whittaker. Fortunately, Arizona was the biggest beneficiary of USC cleaning house on defense in that they picked up DB coach Burns from the Trojans, who turned a secondary full of freshmen into a very productive unit in 2019.

Oregon’s Brenden Schooler transferred to Arizona in 2019. Duck fans will recall that he was recruited as a safety and played that position successfully as a true freshman in 2016 before converting to a wide receiver for his last three seasons in Eugene. I believe that since the DB room in Tucson has a lot more need than the WR room does, he’ll switch back to safety next season. I think that #3 DB Wallace and #5 DB C. Young will round out the safety starters, but this group doesn’t have a lot of depth as there’s only two more scholarship players on the roster and neither have any real playing time.

Arizona returns both its starting corners in #2 CB Burns and #4 CB Roland-Wallace, as well as #25 CB Wolfe who played a bit as a true freshman (a high 3-star, he was the highest rated defensive recruit in the 2019 class). Again depth is a concern with just two more corners on the roster, both upperclassmen who didn’t play last year with true freshmen ahead of them on the two-deep. But the bigger concern is simply that this unit doesn’t cover very well, giving up 8.09 yards per passing attempt (#104 in FBS) and 4.33 passes of 20+ yards per game (#124 in FBS).

It will be interesting to see if new DC Rhoads changes the defensive scheme. Prior to his last stop, the DB coach at UCLA, he had been the DC at Pitt for eight years, DC at Auburn for a year, head coach at Iowa St (and reportedly had a heavy hand in the defense) for six, and two years at Arkansas first as DB coach then DC. For most of that time he’d run a very traditional 4-3 over defense common to Midwest schools, with relatively infrequent zone blitzing by modern standards. For his last year at Iowa St he switched to a 3-4, which was disastrous, and then as Arkansas DC in 2017 I think he went back to a 4-3 (though it’s difficult to tell because that season was nearly unwatchable for the Hogs). Arizona under Sumlin has been very tight-lipped with the media and I’ve gotten conflicting reports on what Rhoads plans to do here. His only press conference back in March was confusing on this topic and I think he misinterpreted the reporter’s question about scheme, although he gave a great answer when asked about depth: “What depth?”

If he goes back to his roots, I have a hard time seeing it working out given Arizona’s roster and the fact that they’ve been recruiting for a 3-3-5 (of one variation or another) for a decade. While I think they’re pretty much set at linebacker with senior starters #1 LB Fields, #8 LB Pandy, and #7 LB C. Schooler (who are all quite effective on blitzes when Arizona brings the house), the defensive line could best be described as a work in progress after losing two of their more disruptive linemen in Finto Connolly and Justin Belknap.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Oregon State at Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2019 Arizona loaded up on 300+ lbs DTs and played them extensively, including two Jucos #90 DT Mason and #99 DT Tapusoa, plus freshmen #92 DT Barrs and #60 DT Irving. But they only have one returning end with any experience, #12 DE Brown, and there’s really no depth of guys with the right frame for the DE position on the current roster. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wind up playing one or more of the mid 3-star true freshmen from the 2020 class. These just aren’t the right bodies for a 4-down front, especially one that wants to get its pass rush around the edge instead of blitzing the backers up the middle.

The defensive line’s performance had me puzzled in 2019. I thought they’d flash some real talent at times and they certainly had the size to be effective in an odd front. But it seemed like, for lack of a better explanation, they’d take every other play off and just get mauled or wildly overrun the play:

It’s possible this is related to coaching; I thought their previous DL coach was a peculiar hire. They’ve replaced him with DL coach Eggen, who’s been coaching defenses for 40 years (23 at the d-line) including Super Bowl MVP and Butkus winner Von Miller at Texas A&M. He also brings with him from New Mexico an all-conference tackle transfer, Aaron Blackwell. There were a bunch of d-line coaching changes in the Pac-12 this offseason, and this was one of the two I really liked (the other was USC hiring Virginia’s Vic So’oto), and possibly the one who’ll have the biggest impact compared to last year … since Arizona finished last in the Pac-12 and #115 or worse in FBS at scoring defense, 3rd down conversions, sacks per snap, and TFLs per snap.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last year’s offseason preview, I think I had a mixed record on the offense. I called mismatch between Tate and Mazzone and predicted that Gunnell would jump up the depth chart as a better fit for the scheme, but didn’t go so far as to predict he’d steal some starts. I whiffed on my prediction that the young receivers would take over for backups who couldn’t beat out the 2018 underperformers, though I’m not sure anyone saw a converted QB becoming the leading receiver. I called the offensive line starters correctly, though I could have randomly picked any five names from the roster and eventually been right given the staggering amount of rotation.

I didn’t think the defense would be very good given the lack of talent and a bad DC, but that was a gimme. The preview accurately described the ongoing depth problems in the secondary. I nailed the defensive line starters and the logic of getting a bunch of big Jucos, as well as the continued falloff of one of their 2017 freshman all-American linebackers, but I guessed incorrectly which of the new backers would supplant him.


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