5 questions on the Arizona Wildcats

Kevin Sumlin has guided Arizona to a 2-3 start.Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Answers on the Cats before the home game vs. Cal

The good folks at Cal Bears Maven asked me to answer five questions this week on the Arizona Wildcats ... so I did.

--1. Why are Khalil Tate's rushing numbers down by so much from last year?

We're on "ankle" watch in Tucson. Kevin Sumlin doesn't really talk about injuries, so it's been a guessing game as to how much Tate has been bothered by a left ankle injury, suffered early in the second game at Houston. He seems to run in a straight line just fine, but he's not making those stick-a-cleat-in-the-ground-and-go quick cuts that we saw last year. Sumlin confirmed that Tate has missed some practice time, so there's ample conjecture that perhaps what the junior needs is some time off. Maybe Saturday night? Can't rule it out.

But the ankle is just part of it.

His lack of rushing yards is a combination of health, a new scheme under coordinator Noel Mazzone and Tate's own aspirations to prove he can be a passer. The season started with less emphasis on designed quarterback runs (and options to runs), and then Tate left plenty of rushing yards on the field by deciding to take deep shots rather than tucking the ball and taking off while scrambling.

--2. How is the team different under Kevin Sumlin from what it was under Rich Rodriguez?

The defense, still coordinated by Marcel Yates, now in his third season, seems much the same. The personnel is a bit better, especially up front with the addition of junior college transfer PJ Johnson, but this is still a unit that generally struggles to pressure the passer, create turnovers and get off the field on third down.

The offense is still a version of the no-huddle spread, but without the prominence of the zone-read attack that was the hallmark of Rich Rodriguez's career. It's a rather conventional Arizona offense, with average personnel, at the moment. If the Bears are like USC, they will challenge Arizona's wideouts with man coverage, devoting an extra player in the box and taking their chances that the Cats can't consistently hit throws down the field.

--3. How have fans reacted to the 2-3 start and to Kevin Sumlin?

Uh, not great.

Sumlin was a very popular hire in Tucson and the offseason went well -- athletic director Dave Heeke said in late July that the school had about 4,500 new season ticket orders, with better than a 90 percent renewal rate -- but the 0-2 start and a Heisman campaign that failed to launch sapped much of the enthusiasm from the locals.

Not even new beer and wine sales at a partially renovated Arizona Stadium could save the Wildcats last week against USC, traditionally one of the best draws in Tucson. But instead of the usual 54,000-plus to see the Trojans, the announced attendance was 43,573.

Do not expect a big or hostile crowd for the Bears on Saturday night.

--4. Were J.J. Taylor's 284 rushing yards against Oregon State a fluke, or is he really that good?

Oregon State's run defense isn't very good; ask Arizona State about that.

Arizona really played well up front against the Beavers, so it was a mix of good holes for Taylor and his own quickness that led to his big day. The thing to watch from Arizona is if and how much left tackle Layth Friekh plays Saturday. He left early in the third quarter of the USC game after being bothered all week by a foot injury. He makes a huge difference.

Taylor is best in space, with quick feet and a terrific spin move. His backup, Gary Brightwell, is bigger and runs with a bit of a nasty edge. Arizona and Taylor failed on multiple goal-line plays late in the USC game until Sumlin put in Brightwell, who battled his way into the end zone. Have to think that if UA is in a similar situation this Saturday night, Brightwell will get the call from the start.

--5. What is Arizona's biggest strength and biggest weakness?

Good question. Does this team have an offensive identity? It doesn't if Tate isn't doing his Lamar Jackson impersonation. Out of 25 team stats tracked on the NCAA's website, Arizona is better than 25th in only one category -- first downs (11th nationally).

The one clear strength is sophomore middle linebacker Colin Schooler, with 10.5 tackles for loss. He has great read-and-react ability and the speed to make that skill matter, showing several times this season that he can chase down the play from behind.

As for weaknesses, we could go on, but let's just go with this: If Cal has third-and-long, the Bears might want to pass to the middle of the field.


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