Dear Mr. Football: Is it time for someone to create a clever nickname for Arizona’s defense?
A: How about the Extreme Survivors?
The Wildcats started a sixth-year senior and two fifth-year seniors on defense last week who combined to make 11 tackles and make the word “journeymen” seem inadequate.
Defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell, 23, is from the high school class of 2015. Phoenix guy. He signed with Weber State. He didn’t qualify academically and enrolled at Mesa Community College, where he played for two years. He then played for the New Mexico Lobos and was frequently injured, lost in a bad program that went 5-19. How’d he do? He made three tackles last year.
Old-school nose guard Roy Lopez, 22, is from the high school class of 2016. Phoenix guy. He chose New Mexico State over offers from Idaho, NAU and Weber State. His final two NMSU teams went 5-19. Not that he’s missing much by leaving Las Cruces; the Aggies canceled their 2020 season.
Linebacker Rourke Freeburg, 22, is also from the Class of 2016. Also a Phoenix guy. He walked on at Arizona in the fall of 2016 about 20 pounds too light to think of getting any immediate attention or a scholarship. Career statistics before last week’s USC game: one tackle in four years. But he committed to getting a good education— he’s in the Eller College of Business Management — and tapped into his gene pool to become a starting linebacker. His father, Ryan Freeburg, was an all-conference catcher and third baseman at Grand Canyon University, a fifth-round draft pick of the 1992 Colorado Rockies who played in 288 minor-league games. Ryan Freeburg hit a home run in a wild 11-10 game against Arizona on the UA campus in 1992 and is now an executive assistant fire chief for the Scottsdale Fire Department.
The question now becomes: can his son and his fellow Extreme Survivors put out the fire of Arizona’s long-burned football program?
Dear Mr. Football: Do the Extreme Survivors have a chance to be winners?
A: It was easy to get a feeling of optimism after Arizona almost beat USC. UA receiver Stanley Berryhill told reporters “our defense played a great game on Saturday.” But pull away the feel-good aspects of being competitive for the first time in a long time, and there are some not-so-good issues.
Arizona’s re-made defense allowed 498 yards and 34 points. It was no Legion of Boom.
Over the last five seasons, Arizona’s defense ranked last in the Pac-12 South in defense (472 yards per game) and points allowed (35 points per game).
That’s almost exactly the totals it yielded to the Trojans.
So where’s the improvement? Perhaps it’s in attitude and approach and surely that USC struggled to beat a patched-together defense that new coordinator Paul Rhoads threw together in the middle of a pandemic.
Washington has a defense at an entirely different level. Over the last five years, the Huskies allowed averages of just 17 points and 325 yards, No. 1 in the Pac-12. The Huskies were even superior to the ballyhooed defenses put together by Utah’s Kyle Whittingham.
A week ago, Washington yielded just 252 yards to Oregon State. That’s the gulp factor entering Saturday’s game.
Dear Mr. Football: Does new Washington coach Jimmy Lake have any reason to thank UA coach Kevin Sumlin before Saturday’s kickoff?
A: In the small world of college football, Sumlin and Lake share a critical career transaction. In January 2012, Sumlin hired Boise State assistant coach Marcel Yates to be Texas A&M’s co-defensive coordinator.
To fill that vacancy, Boise State coach Chris Petersen hired Lake to replace Yates. Lake became available when his job for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — he was the Bucs’ secondary coach — was lost amid the firing of head coach Raheem Morris. Two years later, Lake accompanied Peterson to his new post as Washington’s head coach.
Now Lake is being paid almost $3 million a year.
Dear Mr. Football: Is college football still a financial high-roll in the pandemic?
A: Rather than eliminate the customary night-before-home-game hotel stay as many college football programs have this season, Arizona stayed in a foothills hotel the night before the USC game. Over a season, that hotel bill grows to between $50,000 to $100,000 for most Power 5 schools.
The Huskies are paying new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski $1.05 million this year on a two-year contract worth $2.1 million.
Arizona is paying Rhoads a guaranteed two-year contract of $1.55 million, although both coaches have had their salary reduced by roughly 15% to help their school through the financial crisis.
The UA will save a small portion of its hotel travel costs to Seattle; radio play-by-play man Brian Jeffries will do his broadcast from the press box at Arizona Stadium. Last week, the USC radio crew worked remotely from Los Angeles instead of from Tucson.
With Jeffries working remotely, it is believed to be the first time an Arizona football game has not been broadcast via on-site Tucson radio since 1951. There was no UA-produced radio broadcast of its December 21, 1951 win at Hawaii.
Dear Mr. Football: Does Arizona have any leftover karma from the historic 1998 “Leap by the Lake” victory at Husky Stadium?
A: The Wildcats are 0-4 in Seattle dating to 2009, losing by a combined 158-80. But there is one link to better football at what used to be known as Husky Stadium.
Saturday’s analyst for Fox is Mark Helfrich, the coach at Oregon in 2013 and 2014 when Arizona routed the No. 5 Ducks 42-16 in Tucson and then stunned No. 2 Oregon 31-24 at Autzen Stadium. Those are the UA’s last links to big-time football, the last times it beat a team inside the top 10.
Helfrich hasn’t struggled since Oregon fired him for going 4-8 in 2016. The Ducks gave him a lump sum settlement of $8.1 million in May 2017.
Dear Mr. Football: How good was UA quarterback Grant Gunnell in his sophomore debut?
A: If you put the 12 starting Pac-12 quarterbacks in a draft pool today, my guess is that he’d be no worse than the No. 2 overall pick.
Maybe USC’s Kedon Slovis or Oregon’s Tyler Shough would be No. 1, but Gunnell is in the conversation, a program-changer if he stays healthy.
Of course, I was among the first to say that about Khalil Tate in 2017, but Gunnell sees the field better than Tate, has better instincts of when to run — and is capable of doing so with productivity — and has arm strength and accuracy that’ll surely put him on 2022 NFL draft boards. He has leadership skills that the UA hasn’t seen from a quarterback since Matt Scott in 2012.
After the USC game, Gunnell said: “We’re optimistic and we’re driven. We want to be great here and we’re going to bring some wins.”
Sound familiar? In the opener of his sophomore season in 2006, expectations for QB Willie Tuitama were such that a bar on Fourth Avenue, Bumsted’s, created a drink “Tuitama’s Mama” filled with coconut rum. Before a sellout crowd of 58,540 on opening night, Tuitama led the Wildcats on a winning drive in the final 5:44 to beat BYU 16-13.
It was bottoms up in Tucson. Hopes soared.
Alas, a week later at No. 8 LSU, Tuitama was knocked out, a concussion, and he didn’t seem to recapture his best stuff until his senior year.
Gunnell will be facing an LSU-type meat-and-potatoes operation in Seattle. The Huskies will surely “run the damn ball,” as it says on Lake’s favorite cap. It’ll be physical. It’ll be the type of game Arizona hasn’t won since forever.
Washington 30, Arizona 21.