Coach Kevin Sumlin had done well bringing in talented players on defense, appearing to put Arizona in position to turn the corner on the side of the ball that has long held the program back.
The offseason didn’t do Sumlin and the Wildcats any favors.
Key losses on defense, including three key transfers, and a new group of coaches have turned what should have been a strength into a question mark heading into Sumlin’s third season in Tucson.
“We’ve just got to get on the same page, but we’ve got new people,” Sumlin said. “We’ve moved some people around. We’ve got to get our best people on the field.”
Arizona had one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses even before Sumlin arrived in Tucson three years ago. After last season, when the Wildcats allowed 471 yards and nearly 36 points per game, Sumlin fired defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and lost three other defensive assistants.
The Wildcats still had plenty of talented players, particularly at linebacker, but then started losing them, too.
Linebackers Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler and Kylan Wilborn, along with safety Scottie Young Jr., all transferred or entered the portal. Defensive end JB Brown also opted out of the 2020 season, forcing the Wildcats to adjust.
“We certainly came here to run a scheme,” said new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, the former head coach at Iowa State. “You don’t scrap the scheme and shift and decide to do something else. However, you begin to figure out what it is you can do with the personnel that’s available to you. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.”
Grant Gunnell shared quarterbacking duties with Khalil Tate last season and quickly emerged as a team leader, even as a freshman. Now that Tate has graduated, Gunnell has taken on even more of a leadership role, particularly since the pandemic hit.
“When adverse situations arise, they reveal people’s true character and how you handle those situations, even if you don’t have experience in it becomes important, leadership becomes important,” Sumlin said. “He’s really stepped forward and done some things to grow and help grow our team together during this offseason and during these difficult times. From a leadership standpoint, he’s made some serious strides these past seven months.”
Gunnell threw for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns with an interception last season.
Senior Anthony Pandy was expected to join Fields, Schooler and Wilborn is what was expected to be one of the conference’s best linebacking corps.
Now that those three are gone, Pandy moves from the outside to the inside and is expected to be one of the defense’s leaders.
Pandy has already shown he’s up to the task in training camp.
“Anthony’s leadership has always been apparent and that hasn’t gone anywhere,” Rhoads said. “But myself and the rest of us will certainly be more reliant on him as we move forward because of what he’s been through and the credibility he has as a talented, physical player.”
The athletic department halted offseason activities for two weeks after 13 people tested positive, but resumed after 11 tests were determined to be false positives due to testing errors.
Sumlin had to miss the start of camp after testing positive, but only missed the first two practices.
Arizona was originally slated to open the season at home against Hawaii and host Portland State during the season’s first two weeks. The Wildcats also had a nonconference road game against Texas Tech wiped off the schedule.
Now Arizona will open the season Nov. 7 with a difficult road game against Utah and hosts Southern California the following week. It doesn’t get any easier in Week 3 with a road game against Washington.
The Wildcats also have a road game against UCLA before closing the season at home against Colorado and rival Arizona State.
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