Right now, Colin Schooler and Khalil Tate have all the national attention when it comes to Arizona Wildcats football. That’s great, but it could change in 2018. These five players have the potential to become difference makers this season as they attempt to win the Pac-12 South, the Pac-12, and maybe even a major bowl game.
RB Nathan Tilford (So.)
Tilford excelled in the spring game this season with 91 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Those stats aren’t official, as the spring game statistics weren’t reported, but he shined no matter what. Tilford will likely begin the year as a backup to J.J. Taylor, but don’t be shocked if he emerges as the more dynamic player. He’s a freak athlete and was underutilized last season under Rich Rodriguez. In 2017, Tilford had just 13 carries for 121 yards and two scores. He didn’t catch a single pass.
It would be smart of new head coach Kevin Sumlin to work Tilford into the passing game, as he has tremendous hands and the ability to make something out of nothing. With defenses focused on slowing down Khalil Tate, Nathan Tilford will emerge as a difference maker on the Arizona Wildcats offense.
TE Bryce Wolma (So.)
Tight ends have never really played a huge role in a Kevin Sumlin led offense, but now he’s coaching the group himself. That could really benefit Bryce Wolma in 2018. Last season he averaged 8.6 yards per catch, and that should see a bump this season. He measures in at 6’3” and with the lack of size from Arizona’s receivers he could become a true red zone threat. Of course, Arizona may be a run first team, but Wolma will have his chance to catch some passes. Sumlin seems ready to work the tight ends into the offense more, and Wolma will be on the field for most snaps in 2018.
DE Justin Belknap (RS Jr.)
This man just keeps on getting bigger and stronger. The red shirt junior will be a huge asset for the Wildcats defense in 2018, and his play could go a long way in determining the team’s success in the Pac-12. Belknap had 22 tackles and two sacks a season ago, but with his added strength comes the potential for more. He’ll of course be a starter for Arizona, and he himself will determine just how much he gets to stay on the field. Belknap has the chance to establish himself as a dominant player on the defense if he can get up to 5 sacks and 30 tackles this year.
LB Jalen Harris (RS Fr.)
Jalen Harris, a redshirt freshman, may be the best pure pass rusher that the Wildcats have. This year, he’ll get a chance to show that talent off for the coaches, his teammates, and the fans. He will play the edge linebacker role and, though he may begin as a backup, it’s unlikely he’ll remain there on the depth chart. This kid is going to be a difference maker. Much like Colin Schooler grabbed national attention last season, Harris could do the same in 2018. Along with the aforementioned Belknap, he could be a front seven player that opens some eyes.
CB Lorenzo Burns (RS So.)
Lorenzo Burns should be a starter for Arizona from the get go. Last season he led the team with 5 interceptions and was third in tackles with 81. Those numbers would suggest he’s a household name for Wildcats fans already, but it seems like he isn’t. Burns may not see a spike in numbers in 2018, but if he’s able to put up the same numbers once again fans will have to start paying attention.
If Burns brings back any pick-sixes next season, that’ll quickly cement his status; Arizona had just two interceptions returned for touchdowns as a team last year, plus a pick-six is a play that swings the momentum in a game and lasts in the memories of fans. While returning passes the distance is a lot of luck and/or good blocking, Burns’ own talent helps his cause. If Arizona wins the Pac-12 South it will be because he shut down opposing wide outs.
These players and all their Wildcats teammates will get the first real chance to shine on September 1st against a BYU team looking to rebuild from an awful 2017. Their Pac-12 season will begin on September 22nd at Oregon State. A 3-0 record up to that point would be huge and Burns, Harris, Belknap, Wolma, and Tilford will be factors on both the offense and defense.