As with all things sports during the coronavirus pandemic, Arizona Wildcats football recruiting can be viewed through two lenses.
One is full of optimism and hope. Despite the pandemic, Arizona has secured verbal commitments from 20 prospects for 2021 since May 5. The class currently ranks in the top half of the Pac-12, per 247Sports.com and Rivals.com.
The other lens skews toward cynicism. Why haven’t the Wildcats landed any consensus four-star recruits? Why has Kevin Sumlin struggled to establish a foothold within the state?
Let’s start with the good news, which has been abundant since early May. Arizona has succeeded in landing targets at positions of need from football hotbeds in spite of obstacles that go beyond the pandemic. Recruits weren’t exactly buzzing about the program after back-to-back losing seasons under Sumlin, punctuated by a seven-game skid to end 2019.
Sumlin praised the efforts of his coaching and recruiting staffs. With no in-person visits of any sort, the pandemic has required innovation and resourcefulness.
“You can’t have a guy come in here and be around your team that has not been tested,” said Sumlin, whose team is scheduled to open the season against Arizona State on Sept. 26 under the Pac-12’s revised conference-only schedule.
“But the communication with families and with our prospects has been great by our staff. I think it’s reflected in what our recruiting looks like right now. Because let’s be honest: It’s a little bit different.
“Our staff and (senior director of recruiting and high school relations) Cody Moore have done a great job of implementing some virtual tours, virtual meetings, virtual a lot of things. It’s how you react and how you deal with this situation that makes a difference.”
Arizona has received commitments from six players from California, four from Texas and four from Louisiana. California has long been a critical battle ground for the UA. Sumlin, who coached at Houston and Texas A&M, has made Texas a priority since his arrival in January 2018.
Louisiana isn’t new territory for Sumlin or the Wildcats, but the current number of commits from the Bayou is double the amount Arizona signed in the previous five recruiting cycles.
Sumlin lauded the work of inside receivers coach Theron Aych, who grew up in Zachary, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge; and credited connections with high school coaches in the region. Texas A&M signed 16 Louisiana prospects in the six classes Sumlin mainly was responsible for (2013-18).
“We have a lot of contacts in the state,” Sumlin said. “I think there’s a trust level there, and a familiarity level also.”
Why that sentiment isn’t prevalent within Arizona’s borders remains a vexing topic. Sumlin repeatedly has emphasized the importance of in-state recruiting, but the results have been middling at best.
The UA’s highest-ranked recruit from Arizona in 2019 was Marana High School tackle Jordan Morgan, rated the No. 34 in-state prospect in the class per 247Sports.com. (Sumlin and the staff think highly of Morgan, who held offers from ASU and USC and is likely to start as a sophomore.)
In the 2020 cycle, the UA signed three players in the top 33 — but struck out with three high-profile prospects from Tucson.
“People get frustrated in the state with guys that have left,” Sumlin said. “Obviously, I’ve been on both sides of this.”
While at Texas A&M, Sumlin lured two top-five prospects from the Phoenix area — quarterback Kyle Allen and receiver Christian Kirk — to College Station.
“It’s not like we’re not recruiting those guys,” Sumlin said. “We recruit them hard. But some guys, for whatever reason, it’s been an uphill battle.”
The UA did recently land a commitment from Canyon del Oro running back Stevie Rocker, the 18th-ranked player in the state per 247Sports.com. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from mentioning recruits by name until they’ve signed. But Sumlin did say that the Wildcats’ latest in-state commitment “is a really, really good player.”
Rocker’s commitment gives the UA as many for 2021 as ASU has, indicating that the issue is not unique to the Wildcats. But it has to be disconcerting for both schools that 12 of the top 13 in-state players in 247Sports’ rankings are committed to out-of-state schools, including four to Oregon. The one who isn’t hasn’t committed yet.
The UA suffered two big personnel blows this offseason when safety Scottie Young Jr. and linebacker Tony Fields II — two senior starters — elected to transfer. Young wound up at West Virginia, reuniting with former position coach Jahmile Addae. Fields has WVU in his final three.
Safety and inside linebacker already were positions that lacked depth, and the departures of Young and Fields only exacerbated those concerns. Sumlin mentioned two players who could help plug those holes.
In the secondary, Arizona recently added transfer Isaiah Mays from City College of San Francisco. Nickel cornerback is considered Mays’ likeliest position, but the personnel in the defensive backfield could be shuffled when new DB coach Greg Burns begins working with the players on the field. (Burns joined the UA coaching staff after spring practice was shut down because of the pandemic.)
At linebacker, senior Anthony Pandy was projected to play on the outside alongside classmates Fields and Colin Schooler in new coordinator Paul Rhoads’ 3-4 scheme. But Fields’ departure could change that.
“Pandy has proven that he can play both spots,” Sumlin said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get our best 11 guys on the field. If it’s him as a pass rusher, he’s a pass rusher. If he’s back inside and we have to find another pass rusher …”
Senior Kylan Wilborn is an option to play on the outside. Most of the others have considerably less experience, if any.
If the season is played this fall, the Wildcats might have to rely on young players at certain positions more than they’d prefer. Whether any of them will be in a position to make an immediate impact remains to be seen.
The majority of Arizona’s 2020 class is just arriving on campus – about two months later than usual. They will be integrated into the strength-and-conditioning program by next week, but they won’t have nearly as much preparation time as they would in a typical offseason.
Will it be harder for newcomers — freshmen in particular — to play right away under these conditions?
“I don’t think so,” outside linebackers coach Andy Buh said earlier in the offseason. “We’ll give them enough time to get to where they need to be. And we’ll play them.
“I don’t want to put any limitations on any of these guys, because I’ve seen some incredible things over the last 23 years of my career. Guys that I never thought would play not only played but played well. It just depends on the player.”
Sumlin is hopeful that receiver Jamarye Joiner will be able to participate if/when the Wildcats are able to start training camp in late August.
Joiner, who had a breakout game in the 2019 season finale, underwent foot surgery for a Jones fracture in May. The redshirt sophomore was seen sprinting in a pool a week ago in a video posted to Facebook.
“He’s transitioning pretty well right now,” Sumlin said. “He’s been rehabbing. He’s been in strength and conditioning, so I think he’s gonna be fine.”
Joiner caught 34 passes for 552 yards and five touchdowns last season after moving from quarterback to receiver. The Cienega High School product caught seven balls for 140 yards and two scores in the season-ending loss to ASU.