Technically, Mike Riley is responsible for one hire on Jedd Fisch’s staff at Arizona.
Following Oregon State win over Boise State in the 2013 Hawaii Bowl, Riley — then the coach at Oregon State — had a private conversation with one of his wide receivers, Kevin Cummings, about his future in football.
“He pulled me to the side and said, ‘I know you want to go (to the NFL), and you have aspirations, but if that stuff doesn’t work out or when that stuff is done, you need to get on the field and start coaching,’ ” said Cummings, a Los Angeles native and the Wildcats’ new wide receivers coach. “He was the one who planted the seed and got everything going.”
Cummings added: “He’s the one who got me into coaching.”
Now, Cummings, 30, is part of a UA coaching staff that’s already winning over new recruits and keeping potential transfers in town.
Cummings’ playing career ended in 2014. Since then, he has coached at his alma mater as a quality control coach and at San Jose State for Brent Brennan, a Dick Tomey disciple. Cummings learned his fair share of Tomey-isms — including “the team, the team, the team” — from Brennan and the man himself, who coached the Spartans from 2005-09 and periodically visited SJSU football practices.
“He’s had a great impact on my life even with the short amount of time that I’ve spent with Coach Tomey,” Cummings said of Tomey, who died in 2019. “I appreciate every moment I had with him, an awesome, awesome man. I’m very thankful for him.”
Riley’s vision for Cummings’ future stemmed from his wide receiver’s dedication to not only improving his own talent but Oregon State’s cast of receivers — a group that included All-Pac-12 selections Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. In 2013, Cooks set a Pac-12 single-season record with 128 catches for 1,730 yards. The Saints drafted him 20th overall in the ’14 draft.
“I’ve always loved the game and always wanted to help out guys on the team. I was the receiver that knew the playbook inside and out, so I could help out the guys that were more talented than me,” Cummings said.
When Fisch assembled a staff with NFL experience, West Coast ties and ex-Wildcats, he contacted mutual acquaintances. Cooks and former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion gave the UA’s new coach the goods on Cummings. Cooks and Mannion played for the Rams when Fisch was an offensive assistant on Sean McVay’s staff.
Cummings did his homework too. The former OSU receiver reached out to Cooks.
“I got on the phone with him immediately and he just started laughing,” Cummings said. “He knew why I was calling, because Coach Fisch had just called him.”
Cummings arrived in Tucson to bad news. Four of the UA’s top six wide receivers — Stanley Berryhill, Ma’Jon Wright, Jamarye Joiner and Boobie Curry — entered their names into the NCAA transfer portal to explore other options, leaving Tayvian Cunningham and Brian Casteel as the Wildcats’ two most experienced returners.
Convincing the bulk of Arizona’s pass-catching group to return became Cummings’ top priority.
With a helping hand from Fisch, Cummings held Zoom calls with all four.
“We didn’t talk about the reasons why they left. We didn’t feel as though it was important,” Cummings said. “Everybody has different reasons, but we’re focused on the now. … It was very important to get in contact with those guys and let them know exactly what was going on and let them know we’re going to be there for them every single day, day in and day out.
“Whether it’s football or life, we’re going to be there for them. We just wanted to get that relationship going. Once those conversations happened, the guys felt the energy and felt good about coming back and being a part of this program.”
Berryhill, a Tucsonan, flipped his commitment from Ball State to the UA, while the others wiped their names from the portal.
Curry was arguably the most surprising name to re-join the Wildcats. He was widely viewed as a package deal alongside quarterback Grant Gunnell when the Houston natives and St. Pius X High School teammates signed with Arizona in 2019.
Curry held offers from Georgia, Florida State, Auburn, Florida, Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State and others out of high school. He could’ve talked to those schools again, or followed Gunnell to Memphis.
Instead, Curry chose mentorship from a new UA staff that’s flooded with experience when it comes to coaching receivers.
Fisch coached receivers with the NFL’s Ravens and Broncos, and was in charge of Michigan’s wide receivers from 2015-16. UA quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty spent the last four seasons with UCLA’s wide receivers. Arizona offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll coached wide receivers at the University of Miami.
Add in Cummings, and the opportunity to flourish in a refreshed offense during Arizona’s rebuild was too good for Curry to pass up.
“Why leave?” Fisch asked. “Why leave when you have coaches coming in that have a ton of experience coaching wide receivers? You’ve got a ton of coaches coming in that are from the NFL, where all these guys want to be and go (to). … If you’re a receiver, this is the place you want to be at. There’s a lot of eyes on you.
“That’s what we told them. We didn’t have to sell them; we just had to tell them that and they believed it and now they’re all back. It’s pretty exciting for them to all be here.”
Can the returners produce in the new system? It’s unclear. But Arizona’s 2021 quarterback, whoever it is, will have targets. If all works out, Arizona’s offense could look a lot like it did in 2012, when the Wildcats posted 403 passing yards and 38 points in a win over Cummings and Oregon State.
“When I was playing, Arizona was big-time ball,” Cummings said. “We want to get back to that and have some fun while we do it.”
- Former Arizona defensive tackle Roy Lopez was selected to the East-West Shrine Bowl. College football’s showcase for potential NFL draftees was canceled for COVID-19 concerns, but players named to the rosters will participate in virtual training exercises and informational sessions from NFL coaches and executives.
- Three-star offensive tackle Jaxon McBride verbally committed to Arizona late Monday night. The 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound offensive tackle will join Arizona as a preferred walk-on. McBride is currently a senior at Casteel High School, but played the bulk of his high school career at Milford Academy in New York. Although McBride won’t be on scholarship when he arrives in Tucson, he could position himself to compete for a spot on the depth chart, considering he garnered attention from Cal, BYU, UCLA and Ole Miss. McBride is the fourth newest offensive lineman the Wildcats will bring in for the ’21 season, along with three-star center JT Hand, Illinois tackle Luke Eckardt and Baylor transfer Davis DiVall.
Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski told NFL Network over the weekend that he plans to return for at least one more season with the Bucs. Fisch quote-tweeted NFL insider Ian Rapoport and said, “Not only will he be back in the NFL next year, I was thinking we invite him back to be the head coach of one of the teams in the (Arizona) spring game. Just a thought.” Gronkowski played at the UA from 2007 to 2009, but has been an infrequent visitor since. It’s believed that his last visit to campus was for the 2011 spring game.