clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Season spotlight: Arizona Wildcats

Matt Wells and Co. face potentially their most important test in week 3.

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

In my humble opinion, this season’s schedule is absolutely perfect for our boys. Two early tune-up games against lower tier competition to work out early kinks. That makes week 3 against the Arizona Wildcats a major moment for the program.

I believe this game is the most important of the year. I know there are bigger fish to fry than Arizona, grudges to settle, and cockroaches to step on but hear me out.

For one, Arizona is a good representation of a lot of the Big 12. Baylor, TCU, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State all are teams at the level of the Wildcats. Programs with talent, but a lot of uncertainty of how they will perform.

If Tech can go on the road and defeat Arizona, the team will be battle-tested and ready to break away from the middle of the road pack. Tate is in fact one of the most talented quarterbacks in the nation, Patterson’s new defense will have experience facing a high caliber foe.

Additionally, for Wells and his new staff this is the start of a critical stretch. A loss to Arizona and a (likely) loss to Oklahoma will have this team struggling to stay above water. The season will be going downhill fast.

For Wells personally, wanting to separate himself from the mediocrity of Kingsbury as soon as possible, this is his shot to show what he is bringing to the program. A win will bring around all the doubters, and give the program a jolt of energy.

With how important this game is I reached out to the guys at the Desert Swarm, the experts on the Wildcats. Gabe Encinas graciously answered some questions I asked him.

Kevin Sumlin was a splash hire for Arizona, but year one didn’t quite go as planned for the former Aggie head ball coach. How behind Sumlin are the Wildcat faithful after a rocky first camping?

I think it’s a mixed bag depending on which fans you ask. It’s split between fans thinking that Rich Rodriguez did a poor job of compiling talent for Sumlin to inherent and that Sumlin obviously needs more than one season to get Arizona to where he wants it to be.

And then there is another group, myself included, where we feel like there were plenty of key pieces on both sides to at least hit six wins and there was some really embarrassing coaching miscues and a lack of preparation last season.

A 1-2 non-conference start certainly did him no favors, and missing a bowl game with a very favorable schedule in a down year for the Pac-12 just did not have people feeling good about Sumlin to start.

Everyone’s heard of Khalil Tate, but his first year under Sumlin wasn’t quite as impressive as the Heisman hype he had coming in to the year. What are the expectations for Tate in year 2 under Sumlin? And what about his game do you hope to see the most improvement in to take him to that next level?

Again, there’s another mixed bag here. There is one group who thinks he can get back to his original form when he first came onto the scene and another group that thinks coaches across the country were right when they said he would be best somewhere else on the field.

Last year I think there were a few factors that contributed to Tate’s regression. The first I think was ego. He showed the nation what he could do with his legs and it was clear that he wanted to begin to prove he can make plays with his arm, opting for deep balls when there is plenty of room ahead of him.

Mix that in with his ankle injury from non-conference that lingered throughout the year and it just didn’t translate to much success. Statistically, he actually had a great season and it was one of Arizona’s more well-rounded outputs, but there were a lot of stalls, bad decisions and turnovers.

Tate needs to be a better decision maker and have better awareness. He has shown off a strong arm, some touch and his running abilities but is just very inconsistent at times and makes poor choices. He doesn’t need to put up his Heisman campaign numbers to be successful he just needs to continue to be a leader and make the best plays possible

The Wildcat defense was 92nd last year, and coming from a fan of a team with a perpetually bad defense I know your pain. How much of a step forward is expected this coming year? And to get there, what area of the defense needs the most improvement?

Along with the Khalil Tate issues last season, the defense under Marcel Yates has been probably the most frustrating things to watch since he arrived. Arizona has been ranked as one of the worst defenses each of the last three years he has been here, despite having more than half of the defense returning each year. He needs to show improvement or else he won’t have a job after this season.

Right now the defensive line is a huge concern. It was an area that was truly neglected in recruiting under Rich Rodriguez and Sumlin is still trying patch some big holes up. Right now there just aren’t enough big bodies on the inside with a lot of defensive ends forced to play nose tackle or guard right now. When Arizona doesn’t have a pass rush in a three-man front quarterbacks are just able to carve up the defense and put up points where it becomes a shoot-out.

Tate is obviously the biggest star on the program, deservedly so with how electric he can be, but are there any players Tech fans should be aware of that maybe haven’t made national news?

The big names are going to be JJ Taylor and Colin Schooler. Along with Tate, those are the three most impactful players on the roster. JJ Taylor is a small guy at 5-foot-6, 180 pounds, but he will put defenders on skates and if he and Tate are in-sync on the RPO’s, Arizona’s offense is deadly. Arizona has led the Pac-12 in rushing each of the last three seasons so it’s imperative to get that part going.

And Colin Schooler has been nothing but absolute havoc on defense since he stepped in as a true freshman at middle linebacker.

To get a little deeper with the players you might not know we’d start with Jalen Curry, Sumlin’s big four-star receiver he pulled out of Texas. He’ll be a true freshman this season and with Arizona’s top four receivers from last season either graduated or kicked off the team, he’s without a doubt going to have a lot of pressure to perform. Last season Arizona’s offensive line was a huge concern in the off-season but in came Donovan Laie, who ended up starting all 12 games and came out of nowhere to become one of Arizona’s best NFL prospects.

On defense there are a few guys. Jalen Harris has really broken out into Arizona’s hybrid linebacker/defensive end position and is one of the best pass rushers of the unit. Jace Whittaker is a corner who sat out last season due to injury but will be back to full health this season. You don’t realize how great he is until Pro Football Focus comes out the next week and has him as one of the top graded corners of the week and his advanced analytics are among in the best in the nation.

My belief is this game is a big one for our new coach, Matt Wells, and I would argue is a season defining moment. A real measuring stick for the program and a chance to show Wells has the ship going the right direction. What does this game mean for Arizona? And what are the Wildcat faithful most hoping to see against the Red Raiders?

This is a big test for Arizona and Kevin Sumlin. Week 0 at Hawaii draws some concern, where there’s a fear of a legitimate chance that Arizona could lose especially with travel and having the pressure to beat an opponent like Hawaii.

I really think Sumlin needs to start off 3-0 in 2019. Last year, starting 1-2 heading into Pac-12 play did not put Sumlin in a great position for the rest of the season. With a very difficult back half of the schedule in 2019, Arizona needs to win as many of the early games as possible in order to hit bowl eligibility.

Against Texas Tech, he needs to show that he can stay in control of the game and put his players in position to make plays. There were just so many times last season where it felt like he didn’t get his guys ready or know what was coming from the other team. If he really wants to win the crowd over he needs his team to dominate and show Tucson that he’s starting to take Arizona closer to the top of the Pac-12.

Lastly, what are some hot-spots Lubbock faithful should hit up if they choose to join our road warriors?

We had this restaurant tournament a few summers back that y’all can refer to for a load of references (https://www.azdesertswarm.com/tucson-restaurant-tournament/2016/8/21/12571676/tucson-restaurant-tournament-brushfire-bbq-takes-home-the-championship)

For breakfast you can either go to Baja Café, which is a huge hit with a lot of the athletes. Or you can try out Bobo’s which just has phenomenal breakfast all day and gigantic pancakes. Of course Mexican food is the speciality and the key staples are Guadalajara Grill, El Charro Mi Nidito, BK’s and El Guero Canelo. For all other food you can’t go wrong with Brushfire BBQ and Frankie’s Cheesesteaks.

For a cool gameday vibe you can head to University Blvd which is technically considered off-campus but literally just right across the street. A bunch of bars and restaurants there if you’re a pizza enthusiast like myself you can hit up No Anchovies!, Gentle Ben’s and Frog N Firkin will give you a sports type of feel, Illegal Pete’s is like a Chipotle that serves all alcohol.

If you head towards 4th Ave which is a small drive off campus, there are dozens of restaurants down the street like Bisonwitches (sandwiches), Lindy’s (burgers), Magpie’s (pizza).

Downtown has a lot of great areas too. Riley’s Pizza, The Hub and Café Poca Cosa are all phenomenal choices as well. Street Taco and Mayra Maynard’s also deserve recognition For the night scene you can go University, 4th Ave or Downtown Tucson and they all have great places to drink as well.

Thanks again to Gabe for his time, and I know my fellow Red Raiders and I will be watching the battle in Tucson very closely for a season defining moment.