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Duck Dive: Arizona Football 2021 Preview

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Going deep with the Wildcats’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Arizona Spring Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Special thanks to Bryant Conger of 12 Pac Radio for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Arizona Wildcats roster. Listen HERE.


Arizona v UCLA Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Arizona replaced its entire staff this offseason, and it’s an eclectic group. On offense, it appears that new HC Fisch will be calling his own interesting playbook, developed over years in the NFL as well as a few college stops (most recently as OC at UCLA in 2017, then interim coach when Jim Mora was fired). Between the odd circumstances that he’s taking over and the general talent drain in Tucson, I’m hesitant to predict exactly what the offensive scheme will be simply because Fisch probably doesn’t have anywhere close to the raw materials to build what he wants. The closest we’ve heard from most sources is the nebulous “pro-style” label. I suspect we’ll see something like a West Coast Offense with more tight end usage than previous OC Noel Mazzone’s read-option, horizontally oriented spread-to-pass system.

The offensive positional coaches are a mix between a couple of hires who I think are smart pickups on the market and others who are head-scratchers. We’ll go over the defensive coaches in that section, but they follow the same pattern. I get the picture that Arizona didn’t have a lot of money to spend on their staff and several of these choices seem to reflect that there wasn’t much demand for their services.

I like TE coach Paopao, formerly of UW, because the long resume of tight ends he developed is pretty impressive (plus the circumstances of his firing and replacement with an assistant who’d never coached before didn’t reflect well on the new head coach there, in my opinion). I also think that QB coach Dougherty looks good because I liked his receivers when he was the WR coach at UCLA, probably the most dynamic part of that dysfunctional offense. I don’t know anything about OL coach Carroll other than that he previously had worked for his father as the Seahawks’ OL coach. WR coach Cummings is very young — he played wideout for Oregon St only a couple of years ago — and RB coach Graham doesn’t appear to have ever coached before, instead spending his time since hanging up his tailback cleats working in the NFL Players Association office.

The quarterback room is also starting basically from scratch. Grant Gunnell, the 2019 true freshman whom most close observers of the program thought should have taken over for Khalil Tate that year, got his chance in 2020 but a mid-season injury sidelined him and he’s since transferred out. He’s joined in the portal by longtime backup QB Rhett Rodriguez and 2018 recruit Kevin Doyle. That left only one QB on the roster, #15 QB Plummer, a mid 3-star from the 2020 class forced into playing too early - he finished the season with a very poor statline.

For Spring ball, Arizona took two transfers to compete with Plummer: #9 QB Cruz, a mid 3-star from the 2018 cycle who signed with Wazzu and only got a handful of reps, and #18 QB Moore, a 2-star who signed with Eastern Washington in 2017 then walked on at Oregon St the next year. From watching the Spring game I wasn’t thrilled with any of them and think each one would have been a step down from Gunnell. Bryant thinks Cruz and Plummer are tied at the moment, as the former has a bigger arm but downfield accuracy issues.

The intriguing prospect at QB is transfer Jordan McCloud from South Florida, who arrives for the Fall. He has a career 125.8 passer rating which is below average for FBS, and USF has been terrible for the last couple years, going 5-16 in the two seasons while McCloud was starting for them. But he did have a much better sophomore than freshman year, and we’ve seen promising but poorly used quarterbacks thrive in a new system before, so Bryant and I are both betting he’ll win the starting job.

Despite losing two pretty decent backs — Gary Brightwell, the leading rusher, and Nathan Tilford, one of the only 4-stars on the roster but basically unused last year — I think the running back room is a relative bright spot for this team. Arizona got #8 RB Anderson, a transfer who’d been at Northwestern the last three years and accumulated 4.1 ypc on 228 career rushes, and they return their second leading rusher in #6 RB Wiley, who has 5.3 ypc on 62 career rushes (though that’s a little inflated by a single long run in garbage time last year, take that one out and it’s a more telling 4.6 ypc). I think those two will trade off and get the most carries.

There’s also some good looking depth here - #21 RB John got some backup touches as a true freshman last year, and they return #20 RB Smith who opted out of 2020 for covid reasons, but I’ve always liked and thought he looked good in the Spring game. Arizona also recruited two mid 3-star backs in the 2021 class. So that’s at least four playable backs and room to experiment or handle injuries; I expect the Wildcats will lean on their running game in 2021 just like every other year in living memory, even if Fisch would like to eventually transition to a more pass-heavy offense.

Every time Bryant and I record a podcast we both bemoan how upside-down Arizona’s wide receiver room is. The previous staff insisted on prioritizing the shorter and/or less talented wideouts (including multiple walk-ons and 5’9” receivers playing X or Z), meanwhile #2 WR Curry, the team’s only returning 4-star, has been sorely underused the last two seasons, and the best receiver was a lately converted QB, #10 WR Joiner.

This unit has lost a couple to the transfer portal, Drew Dixon for good and Ma’jon Wright who might be coming back but isn’t officially on the roster. They return everybody else who caught a pass last year — #86 WR Berryhill, #11 WR Cunningham, #5 WR Casteel, and #16 WR Reid — but I’ve never been impressed with any of them and for Arizona’s sake I hope that the new staff re-evaluates their personnel. Curry, Joiner, and perhaps #3 WR J. Johnson (who flashed in Spring practice) going to the top of the depth chart would improve this unit considerably, in my opinion.

Another possible improvement could come in the tight end room. I’ve never thought #81 TE Wolma was a great blocker, but this will be the third staff he’s played for since arriving in Tucson in 2017, and his freshman year he showed he was a pretty decent receiving target. The previous staff scuttled that, and he only got four targets (and four net yards!) in 2020, but from looking at Fisch’s preferences Wolma might be going back to catching balls again. There also appears to be some depth in the unit, although very inexperienced, with three other scholarship returners, a transfer portal addition, and a 2021 recruit. That focus on addition with no attrition indicates to me that Fisch intends more tight end usage in the offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Arizona at UCLA Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With this offensive line, Carroll has the opportunity to prove he’s not just a nepotistic hire. There’s a lot of experience in this unit due to an astonishing number of injuries over the last two seasons (I charted eleven different linemen getting meaningful reps in 2019 alone) and a couple of decent returning pieces like #78 LT Laie and #50 C McCauley, but ultimately it’s a roster made up entirely of low-to-mid 3-stars and will take expert development just to make it an average Pac-12 line.

The right side of the line will need the most work, with Robert Congel (a walk-on from Texas A&M who became a starter at Arizona and then parlayed that into a transfer to Oklahoma) departing and #74 RT Fears being a notable weak spot. The Wildcats have two experienced tackles who might take over from Fears in #77 OT Morgan, who was forced into action too early as a true freshman in 2019, and #72 OT Burrola, who was a starter at RT before but suspended in 2020.

I also think 2020’s other starting guard, #56 LG Donovan, is a candidate for replacement by some transfers - Juco #58 OG Langi and #54 OG Stefanski from Division II, both of whom played in the Spring game and didn’t look any worse that Donovan to me. I didn’t get to see the transfer from Baylor, Davis DiVall, but he looks like a guard and the fact that Arizona got him out of the portal indicates he’s probably in the mix during the Fall.

The roster holes that the previous staff left are pretty big, and the Wildcats are going to be so reliant on transfers that I don’t have high expectations of the personnel. I’m interested to find out how this coaching staff comes together and if Fisch has some playbook surprises, because as Bryant put it on the podcast, “It’s going to be more scheme than talent if Arizona is successful on the offensive side.”


Colorado v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Defense

Fisch’s biggest hire was getting DC Brown, who was previously at Michigan and Boston College where he led several top-10 defenses. Brown uses a 4-2-5 structure, though I think it’s better viewed as a 4-3 because the fifth DB is a hybrid position who mostly has the responsibilities of a strongside backer. That “Viper” position gives a lot of flexibility for a variety of blitzes, which Brown deploys frequently; in turn that requires playing most downs in cover-1 with the conventional DBs in press man.

The new positional coaches on defense are a peculiar lot. The most notable is the return of DB coach Cecil, himself a former safety for Dick Tomey’s Wildcats and a hell of an NFL player. He was brought on in the middle of 2019 to replace fired DC Marcel Yates (now Oregon’s DB coach), an appointment I figured was largely ceremonial to rally a reeling team, but Bryant reminded me he had coached defenses in the past. CB coach Walker has been in the NFL for a long time and got let go when Cleveland fired all of Freddie Kitchens’ staff; his most recent college post was as UCLA’s DC at the end of Karl Dorrell’s term and beginning of Rick Neuheisel’s, during which the Bruins were very bad at football though occasionally shut down good offenses. LB coach Dudzinski seems to have been a respected FCS coach for some time but was an analyst at Michigan in 2020 for reasons I don’t understand. DL coach Hunley hasn’t coached since 2015 at Memphis, when Justin Fuente didn’t bring him along when taking over Virginia Tech but new Memphis coach Mike Norvell didn’t retain him either.

This looks like the same pattern as the offensive coaches - a lot of NFL ties, but very little in the way of recent or productive college coaching and virtually no West coast recruiting connections. It remains to be seen if Brown can recreate his Michigan successes (or avoid his failures) with a far less talented team, but to me it looks like a staff made up of getting whomever he could get.

Five Arizona defensive linemen left the team at the end of last year, most notably Roy Lopez who was drafted in the sixth round by Houston, and Myles Tapusoa who’d been a backup for a couple of years. I think this is going to be a tough transition to a different front with the remaining talent - after those departures there’s not a lot of bodies here since it was a 3-down front for at least a decade, and they’re all low-to-mid 3-stars.

Four linemen from last year’s two-deep return: #90 DL Mason, #92 DL Barrs, #52 DL Blackwell, and #49 DL Jal. Harris (his brother, #6 OLB Jas. Harris, has transferred in from Colorado and is officially listed as an outside backer, though Bryant thinks he’ll become a defensive end - the team roster hasn’t reclassified players from the previous system yet). #12 DL Brown also returns from opting out due to covid; he was a starter on previous teams.

That means to have a complete eight-man rotation for a four-down front, they’ll need to rely on some very young players. The most likely are a trio of 2020 recruits who got a few reps as true freshmen last year: #94 DL Wilson, #95 DL Shand, and #17 DL Terry. Each are at least 6’4” but I think were below ideal playing weight when I saw them last year; that’s room to bulk up this offseason. If all goes well this could be an adequate group but it’s going to take a lot of luck in terms of development, absorbing the new system, and staying healthy.

Betwen the scheme change, poor performance over the last several years, and a large influx of transfers, I think it’s likely that the entire linebacking group will be overhauled for 2021. On paper there’s a lot of returning production from 2020: #8 ILB Pandy (the leading tackler), #48 ILB Henley, #18 ILB Mourning, #47 OLB Freeburg, and #45 OLB I. Johnson were all on the two-deep last year. They’ve lost two backups, Derrion Clark and Kwabena Watson.

But the decision to bring in five transfers undercuts those returners quite a bit, notably Malik Reed from Wisconsin, Kenny Hebert from Vanderbilt, and Jerry Roberts from Bowling Green, although the Harris brother from Colorado may be headed to the defensive line, and after we recorded with Bryant we learned that Treshaun Hayward from Western Michigan won’t be joining the team after all. It also looks like rather than keeping one of the existing backers as the Viper, instead #5 DB C. Young will be converted to the position (he’s a pretty big body for a DB anyway).

Fall camp should be interesting for this position, because the install clearly wasn’t complete for the Spring game and the first three transfers mentioned above weren’t on campus yet. I suspect that only Pandy will make the cut for the linebacker rotation, with transfers and converted DBs making up the rest.

UCLA defeats Arizona 27-10 Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The secondary will be the make-or-break unit for this defensive scheme change, and based on the personnel I would guess it’s the latter. There are so many blitzes in this defense with so much pressure put on the defensive backs that I’d expect them to give up a lot of big plays in their first year even if I thought it was a talented and effective group last year … which I don’t.

Arizona has lost two redshirt seniors from last season, corner Lorenzo Burns and safety Jarrius Wallace, as well as five freshmen or sophomore DBs - two corners who transferred out after not playing, Khary Crump and Edric Whitley, and three safeties who seem to have simply walked away from the program.

At corner, the Wildcats return starter #4 CB Roland-Wallace (the team’s second leading tackler, never a good sign from a corner), and the rest of the returning roster at the position is somewhat distressing: only three guys, and the one who got the most reps of them was a walk-on true freshman in #39 CB Stukes. They brought in a former 4-star, #2 CB Rutherford, who signed with Notre Dame in 2019 but hasn’t played a snap yet. I expect him to be the other starter, with Stukes as a backup. The other backup is a mystery; the two guys Stukes passed up, #15 CB Barnes and #23 CB Hausman, decided to opt-out in the middle of the 2020 season - neither were used much prior to that and the reasons they gave were somewhat cryptic.

If Bryant is right that one safety is converting to Viper and another, #24 DB Short (2020’s starting strong safety) will be converting as well as a backup, then that only leaves three returners for the two traditional safety spots: #21 DB Turner, #13 DB Mays, and #37 DB J. Young. They’ll be joined by another transfer from Northwestern, #9 DB Maldonado, who only got a couple of reps there last year as a true freshman. That’s enough for a two-deep, but Arizona signaled a real need here when they recruited four safeties in the 2021 class, and just playing the odds I suspect at least one will break into the rotation this year.


NCAA Football: Houston at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

In the comments of last year’s preview of Arizona, user Shouldabeenaduck observed, “your tone was really negative in this review, like possibly the most negative you have ever been.” I think perhaps that was justified.

The offense went exactly as I wrote, with the unforeseeable exceptions of Gunnell’s injury and Smith opting out. At every unit, 2019’s struggles predicted 2020’s and probably 2021’s as well, since as the Bard wrote, what’s past is prologue - the offensive line’s talent handicap meant their hard-won experience didn’t amount to much improvement and they were totally reliant on the running game because the receiver room was in an identity crisis.

The closest thing to a black eye I took was Arizona losing three linebackers in the week after I published (Utah is trying the reverse this year, taking three transfers since last week’s article). But those losses hardly mattered, I had low expectations for the group even with them because the new coordinator couldn’t implement much of a scheme change with this limited personnel. The DBs and DL assignments went just as I predicted, with one exception: Lopez transferred in a couple days after I published. I probably wouldn’t have predicted that a 2-star from New Mexico State would have gotten drafted from this group, however.


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