Young defenders Harris, Barnes shine in Arizona Wildcats’ spring game
Arizona’s spring-game scoring format favors the defense, which simply has more ways to put points on the board. So it wasn’t surprising that the Wildcats’ defensive unit “won” Saturday’s scrimmage by a count of 87-30.
But that shouldn’t diminish the performances of two young defensive players who flashed their talent and skills in front of nearly 5,000 fans at Arizona Stadium.
Redshirt-sophomore edge rusher Jalen Harris had multiple sacks (official stats were not kept) and disrupted several running plays, capping a breakout spring. Sophomore cornerback McKenzie Barnes had a pair of interceptions, continuing his growth after an up-and-down freshman campaign.
UA coach Kevin Sumlin, who watched the spring game from behind the offense, couldn’t help but notice Harris. He was everywhere.
“If he continues to get stronger and stay in the 245- to 250-pound range, he’s got a really, really bright future,” Sumlin said. “He brings edge pressure with length. He also showed today playing the run from sideline to sideline. There were a couple times we just couldn’t block him.”
Harris emerged as a starter at the Stud position late last season. He finished the year with 27 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.
“Length, size, speed,” senior cornerback Jace Whittaker said of Harris, who’s listed at 6-4, 242 pounds. “He’s a mismatch out there.”
Barnes was one of three freshmen who played in more than four games for the Wildcats last year. He began the season primarily playing on special teams and made one start at cornerback against UCLA.
The 6-1 Barnes was under 180 pounds as a freshman, and the long season eventually took its toll.
“Toward the latter part of the season he was a little worn down with everything that was going on, the amount he was playing,” Sumlin said. “He was playing a lot of special teams. Then all of a sudden, because of the injuries and where we were at corner, he finds himself out there playing 50-some snaps a game. That was a lot for a young guy.”
Now, Sumlin said, Barnes has “got some experience. He knows what’s happening. He’s a little bit more relaxed in his play. We need him to come on and keep coming on.”
Barnes ended the second series of the spring game with an interception of Rhett Rodriguez and might have scored a touchdown on the play had it not been whistled dead. Barnes’ second pick came later in the first quarter off Luke Ashworth.
“Smart player,” Whittaker said of his protégé. “Knows how to find the ball. You guys saw that tonight.”
Sophomore safety Christian Young accounted for the defense’s third turnover, stripping Drew Dixon at the end of a 27-yard reception and recovering the ball.
Roland-Wallace held out
Another young defensive back who had a promising spring was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage.
Freshman Christian Roland-Wallace suffered a hamstring injury Monday. Sumlin said Roland-Wallace wanted to play, but the coaches talked him out of it.
“All he knew was, ‘It’s the spring game, I want to play,’” Sumlin said. “He’s like, ‘Let me go out there and warm up.’”
“No. Uh-uh. You’re good. We know what you can do.”
Roland-Wallace is expected to play a prominent role on special teams and should be part of the rotation at cornerback. The last thing Sumlin and his staff want is for a minor injury to become a lingering problem.
“We don’t want to start off a career with that kinda deal,” Sumlin said. “I guarantee if we hadn’t kept an eye on him, he would’ve snuck into warmups and tried to get on the field. I’m not saying that’s what we need all the time, but that tells you the kind of guy he is.”
The coaches gave most of the quarterback reps to three young players who are trying to climb the depth chart: redshirt freshmen Kevin Doyle and Jamarye Joiner and true freshman Grant Gunnell.
Returning starter Khalil Tate played only two series consisting of five plays. He threw one pass — an 83-yard touchdown to Devaughn Cooper on the second play of the scrimmage.
“I knew I was going to Coop from the get-go,” Tate said. “He came down with it, and he scored. That’s all that matters.”
Tate said he felt much more comfortable this spring with the playbook and with what to expect from Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
“Last season I still didn’t know it to a tee,” Tate said. “This spring … helped me out a lot, really understanding the concepts and understanding what Coach Mazzone and Coach Sumlin want.”
Joiner led a field-goal drive in the first quarter. Gunnell directed a TD drive in the second. Doyle ended the first half with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tre Adams.
Sumlin said all three quarterbacks had “positive moments and negative moments.” He said the coaches are still trying to “figure out who the next guy is” after Tate and junior Rhett Rodriguez, who played the second series.
McCauley on scholarship
Shortly before the spring game, Sumlin announced to the team that redshirt-junior center Josh McCauley would be placed on scholarship. The meeting erupted, and players swarmed McCauley, who appeared to choke up in a video posted on Arizona Football’s Twitter account.
“He’s a guy that we’ve got a lot of respect for as a coaching staff, just how he handles his business,” Sumlin said. “He was really an iron man last year. A walk-on center, getting everybody directed where to go (who) basically played almost every snap. There’s nobody more deserving of a scholarship than he is based on what he’s done, how he’s conducted his business on and off the field.”
McCauley started all 12 games at center last season. He was the only UA offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.
“He has really developed into a leader,” Sumlin said. “People listen to him.
“He is what you want as a football player – a guy that just works his tail off every day. He does that in practice, he does that in games. He’s right almost 100 percent of the time.”
Redshirt sophomore Edgar Burrola, who started at right tackle, left in the first quarter after injuring his right knee. That left Arizona with nine healthy offensive linemen. Bryson Cain, Robert Congel and David Watson were limited all spring because of injuries and did not play Saturday.Defensive tackle Myles Tapusoa, who missed most of spring practice, dressed and participated on a limited basis. Tapusoa, a junior-college transfer, will be counted on to clog the middle at a position lacking depth and experience.Arizona ran 147 plays during the scrimmage, including 99 in the first half, which consisted of two 15-minute quarters. The second half was 30 minutes long and had a running clock.UA athletic director Dave Heeke said he’d like to “completely tear down” the west side of Arizona Stadium and “build a whole new experience” for fans. There are no concrete plans for the project, nor is there a start date. Heeke said it would take about two years to complete.Arizona received a verbal commitment from three-star cornerback Khary Crump of Culver City, California. Crump became the second player to commit to the Wildcats for 2020, joining Gilbert quarterback Will Plummer.