University of Arizona

First-year Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin says “I think we’ve got a pretty good feel of where we are right now.”

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When he was named Arizona’s coach in January, it didn’t seem like Kevin Sumlin was taking on a rebuild.

The Wildcats were coming off a 7-6 season — up from 3-9 the year before. They had played a bunch of freshmen on defense, three of whom earned national accolades. Sumlin kept the coordinator on that side of the ball, ensuring continuity. He also inherited a supremely talented quarterback in Khalil Tate.

And yet here we are.

Arizona is 0-2 entering Saturday night’s game against Southern Utah. The Wildcats played stretches of good football against BYU but lost by five points to a team they were favored to beat by double digits. They looked worse at Houston — sluggish and underprepared — in a 45-18 blowout.

So was everyone simply wrong about the state of the program? Is this merely a rough but typical transition period? Were key personnel losses and injuries grossly underestimated?

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University of Arizona vs BYU

Arizona wide receiver Shawn Poindexter (19) slips out of the grip of Brigham Young defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku (5) and help set up a Wildcat field goal in the second quarter of their game at Arizona Stadium, Saturday September 1, 2018, Tucson, Ariz.

The first question is difficult to answer, although the results so far speak loudly. In terms of returning starters, at least on defense, Arizona appeared to have a solid foundation. The offense brought back most of its key skill-position players, if not its top linemen.

But throughout the offseason, Sumlin spoke with little certainty about his roster. He lauded the linebackers and running backs. He was careful not to overhype Tate. Perhaps Sumlin simply was describing what he was seeing in practices mostly closed to outsiders.

“When you’re in a new league, a new team, and I said this two weeks ago, you really don’t know until you get on the field with other teams,” Sumlin said this week. “You guys asked me before the first game what we thought. I said we’ll know more at midnight. We’re learning more about this team.”

That process is ongoing, but Sumlin believes he and his mostly new staff have seen enough snaps to grasp what they have. So, in theory, they should be past the awkward adjustment phase.

“Whether it’s through adversity, on the road, at home, against different teams, I think we’ve got a pretty good feel for where we are right now,” Sumlin said.

Tate said he expected the offense to endure “growing pains” as it shifted from Rich Rodriguez’s run-pass-option-heavy scheme to Noel Mazzone’s more intricate attack. But no one expected them to be this excruciating.

Arizona has scored as many points in two games — 41 — as it averaged last season. Four of the offense’s five touchdowns have come late in the second halves of games in which the Wildcats trailed by multiple scores.

Senior receiver Shawn Poindexter sees value in them regardless.

“I believe we are finding things that are working for us,” said Poindexter, who leads the team with 11 catches for 202 yards. “I believe as we continue to trust in those things and guys continue to work hard, it’ll carry (over).”

Arizona lost three starting offensive linemen from last year’s team, which ranked third in the nation in rushing. But when the season began, none of the 2017 starters was available.

It was known in December that Arizona wouldn’t have left tackle Layth Friekh for the first two games, the NCAA-dictated price for gaining a fifth year of eligibility. Friekh is set to return Saturday night.

It wasn’t known that center Nathan Eldridge, a two-year starter at a critical position, would be out indefinitely because of what’s believed to be a knee injury.

With veteran lineman Alex Kosinski also apparently hurt, and Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel not yet eligible, a position that was undermanned to begin with became practically barren. Arizona had to start four linemen who never had started before. Predictably, struggles ensued.

The Wildcats also have missed senior cornerback Jace Whittaker, who unexpectedly sat out the first two games because of a reported hamstring injury. Promising sophomore safety Scottie Young Jr. (suspension/injury) missed the first two games as well. Both could return Saturday night.

Defensive tackle PJ Johnson emerged from the visiting locker room at Houston with a boot on his right foot and did not dress for the game. Fellow defensive tackle Dereck Boles and veteran safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles joined him on the sideline during the game. Suddenly, Arizona was without almost half its projected starting defense.

But the Cougars did most of their damage against the first unit, such as it was. The previous week — with Johnson, Boles and Flannigan-Fowles all available — the Wildcats couldn’t get critical third-down stops when they needed them.

The defense was supposed to be past its growing pains in Year 3 under Marcel Yates. The beefed-up front was supposed to be stouter.

If anything, the injuries have underscored a lack of quality depth, particularly along the lines. Recent recruiting classes have not produced the big bodies Arizona needs in the trenches. It will take time for Sumlin and his staff to fix that.

Meanwhile, they have a season to salvage. A resounding victory over an 0-2 FCS school wouldn’t prove the Wildcats have turned the corner, but it would be a positive sign. Arizona hasn’t had many of those so far.

Sumlin appreciates the way his team kept battling when down the first two weeks. That same sort of determination will be required for the Wildcats to climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves.

“When challenged, these guys in the second half have not quit and have continued to play,” Sumlin said. “And we’re still not into conference play. To me, we’re finding out who’s who.”

Whether rebuilding or recalibrating, Arizona is fighting for relevancy again. The preseason buzz is gone. The stadium won’t be full Saturday night.

The Wildcats need to start stockpiling victories to validate the work that’s been done and help facilitate what lies ahead.

“The guys still believe,” Poindexter said. “We all still believe in Coach Sumlin’s philosophy. We believe in our coaching staff. We can turn this around.”


This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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