CU football opponent preview: Arizona Wildcats aim for bounce-back season

Tate’s ownership of role will be a key for Sumlin’s second year as coach

Christian Petersen / Getty Images
The Arizona Wildcats have won the past three meetings against CU in Boulder and will look to make it four straight on Oct. 5.
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Considering all the expectations around the team and star quarterback Khalil Tate, Arizona might have had the worst start to the 2018 season than any other program in the country.

Expected to contend for the Pac-12 South title, the Wildcats didn’t even reach a bowl game in finishing at 5-7. A Heisman Trophy favorite at the start of the year, Tate fell off the radar a couple games into the year.

Projections are a bit more modest this time around, but with Tate as a senior and head coach Kevin Sumlin entering his second year in Tucson, the Wildcats are hoping for a turnaround.

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on Arizona, which is slated to visit Boulder on Oct. 5.

Following a mostly successful run as Texas A&M head coach, Sumlin took over at Arizona a year ago and appeared to be a good fit with Tate – the sensational dual-threat who ran for 1,411 yards in 2017 despite not playing much the first four games.

Stunned by BYU and then getting thumped by Houston got the Wildcats off to a horrendous start. An ankle injury limited Tate throughout the year, making him less of a danger than he was before. Arizona played well in the middle of the season, but didn’t have enough to recover and get to a bowl game.

This year, a healthy Tate, tailback J.J. Taylor and a decent offensive line should make the Wildcats dangerous on offense – and perhaps even more so than last year.

Following the spring game, Tate, who rushed for 224 yards in 2018 while throwing for 2,530, said he’s more comfortable in the offense being used by Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone.

“I feel real comfortable,” Tate told Arizona reporters. “Me going through this spring, knowing the playbook helps out a lot. Last season I still didn’t know it to a T, so that’s why we had a lot of flaws last season. This spring, it helped me out a lot, really understanding the concepts and understanding what coach Mazzone and coach Sumlin want.”

Defensively, the Wildcats have been among the worst teams in the country for several years. They’ve allowed at least 32.6 points and 432.0 yards per game in four straight seasons. The good news for Arizona is the best of those four seasons was last year, and quite a few players return.

Arizona’s defense features a talented group of junior linebackers, led by Colin Schooler. Possibly the best player on the entire team – maybe even better than Tate – Schooler is one of the best playmakers on defense in the Pac-12. In two seasons, he’s already racked up 27.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 214 tackles.

Tony Fields is another linebacker entering his third year as a starter, sophomore Jalen Harris has shown tremendous potential as a pass rusher, and the Wildcats get defensive leader Jace Whittaker back. He missed all but one game last year.

There are no Pac-12 South titles being predicted for Arizona this year, but if it can navigate a touch schedule, the postseason is within reach. A better version of Tate and a step or two forward by the defense should be enough to get the Wildcats to their sixth bowl game in the past eight seasons.

Arizona Wildcats

Date with CU: Oct. 5, time TBA, at Folsom Field in Boulder

Head coach: Kevin Sumlin, 2nd year (5-7; 91-50 career)

Series: CU leads 14-7

Wildcats in 2018: 5-7, 4-5 in Pac-12

Returning starters: 15 – 7 on offense, 8 on defense

5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):

OT Donovan Laie, So. (12 starts – nine at LT, three at RT – as freshman)

WR Cedric Peterson, Sr. (18 catches, 268 yards, 4 TD)

QB Khalil Tate, Sr. (170-of-302, 2,530 yards, 26 TD, 8 INT; Rushing: 74 att., 224 yards, 2 TD)

RB J.J. Taylor, Jr. (255 att., 1,434 yards, 6 TD; 16 catches, 133 yards)

TE Bryce Wolma, Jr. (5 catches, 69 yards)

5 defensive players to watch:

CB Lorenzo Burns, Jr. (39 tackles, 11 PBU)

LB Tony Fields, Jr. (89 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 TFL)

DL Jalen Harris, So. (27 tackles, 3 sacks)

LB Colin Schooler, Jr. (119 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 18 TFL, 2 INT)

CB Jake Whittaker, Sr. (Redshirted because of elbow injury)

Notable: Arizona has won the last two meetings against Colorado, by a total of 11 points. … CU is 6-4 against the Wildcats in Boulder, but Arizona has won its last three games at Folsom Field. … The Wildcats lost their four leading receivers from last year. … Kicker Lucas Havrisik returns after splitting duties last year. He was 6-for-11 on field goals and 22-of-24 on extra points. … Arizona’s defense improved a bit last year, going from 34.4 points per game allowed in 2017 to 32.6 in 2018. However, the offense dropped from 41.3 points per game to 31.3 per game. … Over the past four years, Arizona is 22-28, including 13-23 in Pac-12 games. … Whittaker started all 13 games, with a team-high 13 pass breakups, in 2017. … Last year was Sumlin’s 11th as a head coach and just his second with a losing record. He had taken his teams to seven consecutive bowls before last year. … Receiver Devaughn Cooper and defensive lineman My-King Johnson – both potential starters – were dismissed from the team this offseason. … The Wildcats ranked 91st nationally with only 23 sacks. … On offense, Arizona led the Pac-12 in rushing (202.4 yards per game) and total offense (457.7).