A lone cumulus cloud billowed over the horizon as the Arizona Wildcats football team scurried its way through a late summer practice on Saturday, Aug. 4.
The storm cloud never threatened the practice itself but served as a proper allegory for a squad coming off a tumultuous offseason.
That offseason, which included the dismissal of Coach Rich Rodriguez and the hiring of former University of Houston and Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin, could forever alter the landscape of Wildcats football.
The first glimpse of the Wildcats’ future came last weekend, when the team held the first of its two -week-long fall camp practices.
The pad-less practices allow coaches to see how their players look in executing their assignments, while giving players a chance to earn a start in the Wildcats starting lineup.
Sumlin did not address the media after the team’s first Saturday practice, though first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone did.
Mazzone, who previously served the same capacity at Texas A&M with Sumlin, has coached since 1980, when he took his first gig as a graduate assistant at his alma mater (the University of New Mexico).
Mazzone’s main task is making sure that rising junior quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Khalil Tate is ready to go for the team’s opener against Brigham Young University on Saturday, Sept. 1, at Arizona Stadium.
Mazzone expressed confidence in the California gunslinger, saying Tate is further along in his development than he expected.
“[Khalil’s] done a good job the first two days right now. But like any quarterback, you’re looking for consistency and he’s shown that so far,” Mazzone said on Saturday. “But then it’s only been two days. So, I’m excited at where he’s at with him.”
The junior quarterback will look to one-up his gaudy statistics from a year ago, when he threw for 1,591 and ran for 1,411 yards with 14 passing and 12 rushing touchdowns for the Wildcats.
Mazzone believes that Tate has the right demeanor to do just that, working hard through summer and fall camp to improve his game.
“He’s a pretty grounded kid and I know that he knows where he’s at with this football team and in his career,” Mazzone said. “I think he just comes out every day to get better and help this football team win.”
A key for Mazzone and the Wildcats this season will be their ability to build depth, so the team can cycle in players without missing a beat
He’s encouraged by what he’s seen from the team’s wide receivers and tight ends so far, praising senior wideouts Shun Brown and Shawn Poindexter in particular for the efforts in practice. Mazzone knows that both seniors will be crucial in Tate’s development as a passer, providing sure-handed targets downfield to open up running lanes for the junior.
“I feel really good about those guys right now. We’ve got some good competition on the outside,” Mazzone said. “…It’s like any camp, what you’re always looking for is competition because competition builds good football teams.”
Mazzone said he’s thrilled with Tate’s willingness to work onmaking his game more versatile, working hard on his passing skills to compliment his athleticism.
“He’s a dynamic runner and I think what he’s trying to do now is become a rounded quarterback where he can also play the play the position the other way too in the pocket,” he said. “And that’s what I think he’s been working hard on.”
Brown expressed confidence in his ability to carry the Wildcats passing game this fall, saying his work over the offseason should propel him further than in year’s past.
The Louisiana native is thrilled with Mazzone’s pass-heavy offense so far, believing he’ll have more opportunities to make plays at receiver, a year after leading the team in receiving yards (521) and yards per catch (18.0).
Brown is confident in this year’s receiving corps, saying the veterans and young guys share a hunger to succeed not found in years past.
“I feel like those guys, when they came in, they’re hungry,” he said. “They ask me questions, they always want to throw, do extra stuff. And I believe they want to win. So, that right there speaks for itself.”
Making special teams great
Jeremy Springer took a deep breath and let loose a torrent of football jargon after practice on Tuesday afternoon.
Springer, 29, is in his first season with the Wildcats, coaching the special teams unit for Arizona this fall.
The native Texan, whose brother, Justin, works as a strength and conditioning coach with the Wildcats, is tasked with building a core unit of kick and punt coverage and return team players.
His task isn’t simple, but is a labor of love, with Springer enjoying the early work he’s put in with the units.
He’s thrilled with the two-man kicking competition between rising senior Josh Pollack, who converted 11-of-15 field goals a year ago (and 23/29 in his two-year tenure) and rising sophomore Lucas Havrisik.
Springer was rather tight-lipped about the status of the competition, saying both have what it takes to excel this fall.
It’ll be hard to deny Havrisik, who showed off his rocket-powered right leg in spurts as a freshman, hitting three of four field goals, including a 57-yard bomb.
Springer wants one man to handle the team’s kicking needs this fall, unlike last year, when the two split reps depending on the distance needed.
He is impressed by the effort that each player has shown in spring and fall camp, with Havrisik exhibiting strong potential, while Pollack has honed his workman-like attitude toward the craft.
Havrisik believes he’s done everything he can to win the job ahead of the team’s opener against BYU.
The Riverside, California, native says he’s been working hard on the field and in the weight room over the offseason—getting his weight up from 163 to 188 pounds since the end of the season.
He’s also worked on his form, trying to eliminate any stutter-steps that derail kicking form in games.
His offseason routine has also included extra yoga and stretching work with Justin Springer, which has paid dividends already, according to the sophomore.
He believes that his steadfast approach to kicking will earn him a leg up on Pollack in their friendly competition for the starting job.
Havrisik told the media that his focus is on “staying consistent and staying disciplined. Keep doing your own thing. I mean, I’m still kicking great, but [Josh] is doing good too. So, I just have to stay disciplined and trust myself.”
Havrisik said the two-man battle for the starting kicker role has remained friendly, with each kicker doing their best to learn what they can from each other.
He believes their camaraderie will help come the regular season, as they’ll be able to talk with each other when things are going well and commiserate when they’re not.
“We’re really good friends,” Havrisik said. “[Josh] is a great guy. I don’t think the competition really gets in between us. I mean, we’re both competitive, but we’re good friends, so it’s pretty good.”
Havrisik believes that the addition of Springer as a full-time special teams coach can help the unit tap into its fullest potential this season.
“I think it’s huge, because offense and defense, that’s one-third and two-thirds of the game,” he said. “The third-third is special teams and that can play a huge role with the kickoff return. If you have a great kickoff return, kickoff coverage team, punt team—all of that, it’s just huge.”
Marcel Yates leading a defensive renaissance
Tony Fields II sees a bright future for the Arizona Wildcats’ defense, a year after being named to ESPN’s Freshman All-American team.
Fields, who had 104 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and an interception as a freshman last season, believes the team is in for a defensive renaissance this fall.
Part of his gushing confidence comes from the continuity he and his defensive brethren have in third year Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates.
It also comes from the trio of dynamic linebackers that the Wildcats have, in Fields, Colin Schooler and Jacob Colacion, who combined for 206 tackles and 3 interceptions a year ago.
Fields admits that he made mistakes on defense as a freshman but believes that he’s in better shape and is better prepared heading into his sophomore campaign.
“I feel like I need to develop a lot,” Fields said. “Obviously, I made a couple of plays, but I could have helped my team more and more if I worked on my craft a little bit more beforehand.”
Yates believes that Fields and Schooler will have big years this season, saying that the duo and the Wildcats revamped defensive line, including Derek Boles and PJ Johnson, can up their defensive fortunes.
“Our next step is to be a lot better against the run,” Yates said. “For me, I go back, and I look at when I was an assistant coach or a coordinator, I’d go back and look at what we’d do well. And usually, when we were doing well, we were able to stop the run. So, we’ve got to be better and filling our gaps and getting downhill, and we’re seeing that each day.”
Shoring up the defensive side of the ball will be key for Yates and Coach Kevin Sumlin, coming off a 2017 season where the Wildcats ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in points allowed (34.4) and yards per game allowed (471.2).
Their rushing defense ranked ninth in the conference, allowing 185.1 yards per game, with their pass defense ranking dead-last, at 286.1 YPG.
Fields believes the team’s biggest step towards righting their defensive deficiencies is in their improved depth and talent level.
He believes the team will have the talent in the secondary and at linebacker to stymie opposing offenses on the ground, while the secondary will ground opponent’s passing attacks.
He believes the offseason work undertaken by safeties, like freshmen Dayven Coleman and Christian Young as well as senior Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, will help shore up their pass defense this year.
“The biggest difference this year is that we’ve got a couple more linemen, like PJ Johnson and Mykee Irving, and we’ve got more linebackers to work with,” Fields said.
The biggest improvement for the Wildcats this fall, according to Yates, is the on-field comfort level that players like Fields, Schooler and Flannigan-Fowles have with each other and with the system that the UA has had in place.
“All those guys they go from trying to learn the defense to trying to learn, ‘OK, how is the offense going to attack us,’ which is a huge difference,” Fields said.
Fields has a set of expectations laid out for his sophomore season that he would not disclose publicly but says fans will be in for a treat when their season kicks off on Sept. 1.
“Before the season, I sat down with my old high school coach and a few players and I set out goals for myself,” he said. “I said that I wanted to have 100 tackles and I wanted to be a Freshman All-American and it’s just a blessing that it actually happened. I worked as hard as I could to make it happen and it actually happened.”
He says his teamwide goal for the season is to hold opponents to 13 points per game, some 21 points lower than the 34.4 points per game they surrendered in 2017.
He believes that Sumlin and Yates are the right men to lead them forward and that the team’s brightest days lie ahead, starting with the Cougars on Sept. 1.
“We know exactly what we have to do because [Coach Yates] touches on everything,” Fields said. “He tells us when the corners messed up and things like that. So, we know everybody’s responsibility on the field now.”