Before Saturday’s game against the Arizona Wildcats (3-1), we reached out to the folks at AZ Desert Swarm. Brian Pedersen was kind enough to answer our questions about a game that could go either way.
Both teams are dealing with significant injuries, with Khalil Tate’s status as a massive question mark on this game. How did Grant Gunnell fare last week in his first college action? Is JJ Taylor replaceable?
Grant Gunnell had about as good of a first career start as you could hope for from a true freshman, going 29 of 44 for 352 yards with a TD. Most importantly, though, he didn’t turn the ball over. He had the benefit of getting a lot of reps during the week since Khalil Tate’s injury happened before a bye, and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone tailored the gameplan to minimize risk for the young QB. As for J.J. Taylor, as good as he’s been he’s very replaceable because Arizona had already been employing a by-committee approach at running back with four other guys (junior Gary Brightwell, redshirt sophomore Nathan Tilford, redshirt freshman Bam Smith and true freshman Michael Wiley) all getting meaningful touches.
It appears that Marcel Yates’ defense picked up where it left off, in a bad way. However, since the Northern Arizona game, they’ve only allowed four touchdowns in two games What exactly ails the Wildcats on the defensive side of the ball?
Arizona still lacks any real semblance of a pass rush, though they’re getting closer. The Wildcats are rotating seven or eight guys on the defensive line, in order to keep them fresh, which has really paid off in the last two games with fourth-quarter shutouts. If the guys up front can just create a little pressure that opens up things for a very talented linebacker group to come flying into the backfield.
From the outside looking in, how is Mel Tucker doing so far?
Kevin Sumlin raves about Mel Tucker, and from what I’ve seen it’s warranted. He hasn’t looked unsure of what he’s doing, which is often a problem for first-time head coaches, and he also can rock shorts on the sidelines like no one else has.
Is Kevin Sumlin anywhere near the hot seat?
I see no way that Sumlin is on the hot seat, and for a few reasons. First, Arizona doesn’t have the money to pay off another coach since it’s still paying for Rich Rodriguez’s buyout, though if this season suddenly cratered and the Wildcats went 4-8 or 3-9 a big donor might be willing to cut a check. But more than anything, all of the attention on the men’s basketball program and its connection to FBI and NCAA investigations means that Sumlin is mostly operating away from a microscope.
JJ Taylor reminds of Phillip Lindsay in that he should be too small to be a lead back, but through toughness and willpower, he just torches team after team. What makes him so special?
Taylor is very solidly built and is hard to take down, and he managed to survive getting a lot of carries last season. The plan was to lighten his load this year, partly with the other running backs and also eliminating kickoff returns, but now with the injury he might be out for a while. When healthy, however, he has such a powerful lower half that he just keeps those legs moving and always generates positive yardage.
Who are the players to watch on offense? Defense?
A junior college slot receiver that Arizona found late in the recruiting cycle, Tayvian Cunningham, has been a revelation with his speed and hands. He’s emerged as one of the top targets for a wideout group that didn’t come in with much experience. On defense there are several veterans who stand out, such as linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II as well as cornerbacks Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker. Burns and Whittaker each have three interceptions, as Arizona is tied with Florida for the FBS lead with nine picks.