Arizona went 1-11 last year – and even that one win had an asterisk, over a covid-depleted Cal team – in HC Fisch’s first season with the Wildcats. Still, five of those losses were by single-digit margins, and I can report from reviewing their film that Arizona was playing hard on every snap and had resisted the temptation to give up that a number of teams with better records in the Pac-12 succumbed to last year. Fisch pulled in a top-25 recruiting class in 2022, and between a lot departures of underperforming players from previous staffs and a big infusion through the transfer portal, I think there’s been a huge net upgrade in talent in Tucson.
There were four main problems with Arizona’s offense last year:
- A scheme that assumed future NFL-caliber players they didn’t have
- Atrocious QB play - the first two starters couldn’t pass and the third got hurt
- Undersized and talent-deficient skill players
- Maybe one good offensive lineman
I think they’ve made big strides in fixing the first three of these for 2022. By week 4 (against Oregon, naturally), Fisch had junked his pro-style playbook and made a change at starter to #3 QB McCloud, a transfer from USF who had operated a spread, running-QB playbook before. The Wildcats looked pretty good against the Ducks and were beating the Bruins the next week, until McCloud suffered a season-ending leg injury. The rest of the season Arizona had to go back to their poor QB play and faced a dilemma with the scheme – the pro-style playbook didn’t have the necessary talent, and the spread playbook didn’t have the right QBs. They then suffered some embarrassing blowout losses to Colorado, Wazzu, and ASU, but those were interspersed with encouraging close games against UW, USC, and Utah. If Fisch had figured out that his initial offensive plan wasn’t going to work in August instead of late September, this might have been a lot better record, and it’s hard to believe he’ll make the same mistake again.
McCloud is healthy again, and there are two new faces in the QB competition – Wazzu transfer and two-year starter #7 QB de Laura, and high 3-star #11 QB Fifita from the 2022 class. The two initial starters from last year, #9 QB Cruz and #15 QB Plummer, also return. I think this probably isn’t a five-way race, though – Cruz and Plummer had their shot, and Fifita is a 5’9” (generously) true freshman. On the podcast, Bryant relayed that de Laura is widely expected in Arizona media to have the job locked up because of his experience, but I thought McCloud outplayed him in the Spring game and his (admittedly limited) film is more promising than the highly inconsistent de Laura’s has been at Wazzu. I don’t think this race is over yet and do expect it to go through Fall camp … unless a political rather than merit-based decision has already been made.
The running back room is full to bursting, with five returning scholarship backs plus a couple of walk-ons and two fairly talented true freshmen, and only one departure. I thought this unit was limited last year (beyond the ineffectiveness of the o-line) by their use of a four-back rotation, and curiously, the back with the best average — #23 RB Rocker, at 4.9 YPC – got the fewest carries. Fellow returner #6 RB Wiley got three times as many carries and five times as many catches, but only averaged 3.3 YPC on the ground and had a comparable reception average as Rocker. They also return #8 RB Anderson and #21 RB John, whose carry counts and averages were in between Wiley and Rocker’s but had much worse reception stats.
It’s also notable that the two incoming freshman have significantly higher 24/7 composite ratings than any of the returners - #24 RB Coleman was a high 3-star and looked good in the Spring game, and Rayshon Luke is a 4-star though not yet on campus. Everybody else in the room is a low-to-mid 3-star. I think this unit would be better served by consolidating around Rocker (I thought he looked much faster and more capable than the rest of the returners, though Bryant says he didn’t see that), one of the talented freshmen, and maybe one more back, and putting the rest of the guys on the bench. Both Bryant and I expect to see a couple more transfers out of this room before the opener but we’ll have to see how Fisch chooses to approach this unit.
The tight end room loses longtime starter Bryce Wolma and the quasi-fullback Clay Markoff who’d transferred from Wazzu, plus three guys who didn’t play in 2021. I tend to think that Wolma was misused for almost the entirety of his career and I doubt they’ll need a fullback with the offense going forward, so I don’t think those departures will be too painful. They return #88 TE Lines, a freshman transfer from UNLV last year who had the most catches in the unit but could stand to beef up as a blocker, and there’s a couple other returners in the room who didn’t play plus a newly converted defensive lineman, #45 TE I. Johnson. They’ve added two freshmen in the 2022 class, Tyler Powell who’s a mid 3-star not yet on campus, and 4-star #89 TE Burnett who is.
Burnett was in some ways the star of the Spring game and I think he’ll be ready to play right away. I think this unit gives them the option to play with 11- or even 12-personnel sets, so it will be interesting to see in Fall camp how the offense evolves around what’s probably a significant upgrade at TE talent. The big uncertainty is how well they can block – I wasn’t thrilled with Lines’ size and Burnett is even lighter (just 225 lbs according to the most recent official roster update), plus the Spring game was a pretty low-contact affair so I don’t have much data to go by there. But even if these guys are little more than big wide receivers and the Wildcats are effectively in 10-personnel every snap, I still think this is a net improvement to their available pass-catchers over last season.
The most remarkable transformation among the skill players is the wide receiver corps. Bryant and I have spent years bemoaning how much playing time the Wildcats have devoted to short walk-ons and unrated Jucos, while the occasional tall receiver didn’t play or washed out. All of those guys have now left the program in a mass exodus of eight departures from the WR room. What remains are some pretty promising guys - #5 WR Singer who was fairly productive last year, #10 WR Joiner who was arguably the most talented player on the whole team, and #18 WR Wright who finally seems to have resolved his transfer issues and is with the team for good. All three are 6’1” or 6’2”.
They’ve also added some pretty exciting talent in the 2022 class - #4 WR McMillan, a high 4-star who looks ready to play right away, high 3-star #12 Green, and #16 WR Jones who’s a mid 3-star but 6’3”. Arizona also brought in slot receiver #2 WR Cowing, a three-year starter at UTEP with almost 2,600 receiving yards in his career (including 1,350 last season) and who looked excellent in Spring for the Wildcats. The depth here is a bit of a problem – there’s only two other receivers in the room, one of whom is a walk-on – but that aside this looks like a very promising receiving corps which is likely to be a massive net improvement over what they’ve had in Tucson for the better part of a decade.
Where the upgrades and fixes to Arizona’s offense stop, however, is at the offensive line. It’s shown pretty poor play for a long time, there are no reasons to believe it’s going to get better, and in fact it might be getting worse.
The lone bright spot is #77 LT Morgan, who’s really filled out since he started playing as a true freshman in 2019 and shows pretty good footwork on tape; he returns and should be one of the best left tackles in the conference. They also return former Jucos #56 RG Donovan and #74 RT Fears, though I’m significantly less impressed with their play over the years. They’ve lost 2021 starters #78 LG Laie and #50 C McCauley, plus a starter from previous seasons, #72 OL Burrola.
On the podcast, we discussed extensively that Donovan and Fears probably don’t face any threats to their jobs for the same reason that it’s going to be tough to replace Laie and McCauley – there’s just no promising talent or meaningful experience in the rest of the OL room. Virtually every other o-lineman is a freshman who’s never played live reps, and I found them impossible to differentiate or applaud in their performances in the Spring game. The two remaining non-freshmen are #79 OL DiVall, a low 3-star who’d previously transferred from Baylor but didn’t crack the rotation last year, and the new transfer #63 OL Buford, a low 4-star who initially went to Mizzou then transferred to New Mexico.
Both DiVall and Buford appeared pretty late in the Spring game, well behind the various freshmen the Wildcats were trying out, and Bryant says there’s been a lot more discussion from the staff and in the media about those freshmen than the transfers. I’m honestly at a loss for how the replacements to the departing starters will go – Bryant’s guess is #75 OL Baker, a mid 3-star from the 2020 class, and #71 OL Savaiinaea, a high 3-star true freshman – but I’m fairly certain that whoever they are Arizona is in for the same ineffective line play that they’ve shown as far back as I can recall.
While the offense had no coaching changes, the defense will get a fairly significant change – last year’s coordinator Don Brown has taken the head coaching job at UMass, and he’ll be joined by Keith Dudzinski who was last year’s linebackers and special teams coach. They’ll be replaced by DC Nansen and LB coach Kaufusi, both of whom have been bouncing around the Pac-12 as linebackers coaches for a long time. As far as I can tell, Nansen hasn’t been a DC since 1998 (and that was at the high school level), and he’s worked under such disparate DCs as Nick Holt at UW and Clancy Pendergast at USC, so it’s been difficult to nail down exactly what scheme he plans on employing at Arizona.
Last September in my in-season preview of the Wildcats, I noted that Brown had changed up his typical 4-3 (with a “Viper” hybrid as the third backer) structure on all downs that he’d used at Michigan to deploying a 3-4 structure on 40% of downs in Arizona, and that I couldn’t crack the code as to what factors would prompt the switch. I still can’t, and it’s a moot point for Pac-12 fans anyway, but what appears to be the case from the Spring game is that Nansen is simplifying the scheme significantly. There seem to be far fewer blitzes, much more zone coverage, and an even-surface 3-3-5 with an OLB on the line and two ILBs at depth on just about every rep I watched. Bryant tells us that most of the media coverage has been about how easing up on the blitzes and not keeping the DBs in man all the time should be a better fit for the talent (which is probably true), but there’s been very little commentary on how the front will be affected.
I suspect that Brown and Nansen both have increased their use of 3-down fronts due to attrition in the defensive line room – they lost a couple guys to the NFL for the 2021 season, and they’ll be losing three more big contributors for 2022: tackles Trevon Mason and Mohammed Diallo, who were the only 300-pounders in the room, and end Leevel Tatum who was an effective transfer from Fresno St. They also lose four more depth guys.
By my count there are 14 defensive linemen on scholarship for Arizona after Spring ball, including a couple on the official roster who have been reclassified as ends instead of OLBs. That’s enough for a 4-down front if Nansen wanted and a hint he might like to make the switch, so I still consider this an open question and will be watching in Fall camp if it happens. However, only three or four guys are proven producers: #92 DT Barrs, #1 DE Jal. Harris, and #95 DE Shand. They also return #12 DL Brown who’d been productive in the past, but he opted out of 2020 on covid concerns and then only played part of the 2021 season for reasons I don’t understand.
Five other linemen, including former 4-star #98 DT Savea who transferred from UCLA, got a handful of reps each in 2021 - not enough for me to form intelligent opinions about them. The remaining five in the unit comprise three returners with no reps and two true freshmen from the 2022 class. With the exception of Savea, everyone in the d-line room is a low 3-star.
Regardless of the defensive front structure, I think the Wildcats’ d-line should be okay if not great. They do have some returning producers plus plenty of available guys of the right size for depth, and only three look to be under playing weight right now. The talent and size don’t seem to be anything special, but unlike several lines in this league, I don’t think they’ll be hurting for capable bodies either.
One reason I suspect Nansen will stick with the 3-3-5 is that it would allow the best usage of 4-star USC transfer #31 OLB Echols, who’s probably the most talented player on the entire defensive squad. I’ve been observing Echols for his entire career and I think the Trojans have almost criminally misused him – he’s potentially very effective off the edge in the right scheme, and was playing that position exclusively in the Spring game. I’m not sure who in the rest of the linebacker corps will be inside or outside (they’re all just listed as “LB” on the official roster), and the Spring game was just ‘The Echols Show’ at OLB.
There’s a huge amount of turnover in the linebacker room too, which considering how problematic this unit has been for the Wildcats for years, is probably appropriate. They’re losing seven players, three of whom were the starters (I think, Don Brown’s unpredictable scheme made it tough to tell at times) Anthony Pandy, Kenny Hebert, and Treshaun Hayward, plus two more regular backups and two freshmen who didn’t play. They brought in four transfers: the aforementioned Echols, 4-star #10 LB Solomon from Michigan, low 3-star #44 LB Mercier from Utah, and unrated #57 LB A. Ward from UW. The latter three don’t appear to have played in 2021. In addition, Arizona has recruited six (!) linebackers in the 2022 class, including low 4-star Sterling Lane and high 3-star Tyler Martin, plus four other mid 3-stars, but none were on campus for Spring ball.
The Wildcats return eight linebackers, but only one got meaningful reps last year, the 2-star transfer from Bowling Green #48 LB Roberts who didn’t knock my socks off. The other seven got little to no playing time, curiously including the Wisconsin transfer #53 LB Reed who I thought would have muscled his way in.
There are 16 (or 18, depending on how they hand out scholarships) guys in the room which is a bonkers number regardless of scheme, and I expect some clarifying transfers out before the opener. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the entire first- and second-string linebacking unit wound up being transfers. The unit has been a mess for a long time, the returners couldn’t break into a bad lineup last year, and even if some of these freshmen do turn out to be playable, they’re not going to show up until Fall. It’s hard to predict this unit will be playing cohesively right away and I don’t have high expectations for 2022, but it’s probably been a necessary set of moves for the future.
The cornerback unit lost half its guys to the portal – three of the six DBs I had tabbed as corners – but on closer inspection I actually think this isn’t really a big deal. Those three scholarship players appear to have been pushed out by returning former walk-on #20 CB Stukes, who was effectively the second starter last year across from the pretty good returner #4 CB Roland-Wallace, and I don’t believe they had gotten any playing time last season. The Wildcats also return backup #2 CB Rutherford, a former 4-star who’d initially signed with Notre Dame.
Arizona will add three more corners from the 2022 class – low 4-star #7 CB Prysock and low 3-star #24 CB Celestine who were on campus for Spring, plus mid 3-star Tacario Davis who’ll join in the Fall. I expect that between three solid returners and those freshmen they’ll be able to field an adequate enough unit, though it might get precarious if they suffer any injuries.
The safeties are where Bryant and I both think the secondary gets a lot more problematic, as it has been for a long time. It’s not because of departures, either – they lost three to the portal, but like the corners, they appear to be guys who got no playing time and were pushed out by a walk-on winning the starting job, in this case #3 DB J. Young. He returns, as do fellow starters #21 DB Turner and #5 DB C. Young. Bryant and I both have tabbed former transfer from Northwestern #9 DB Maldonado and this year’s transfer from UCLA #14 DB Warnell as the nickels. There are three other returners in the safety room, each of whom only got a handful of reps last year.
The real issue with the defensive backfield is that they just aren’t very good, and so all that returning production doesn’t mean a whole lot. Everybody here is a low-to-mid 3-star (except the walk-ons) and they spent all year getting torched down the middle of the field. That’s probably the second biggest reason — besides the appalling passing offense — that they lost so many games, including several that were winnable if they just could have stopped a couple of big passes. They took only one mediocre transfer and zero prep recruits at safety, and I don’t think they have any chance of improving until they turn this unit over like the linebackers appear to have done.
In last summer’s Arizona preview, my guess for Fisch’s new offense was that it’d be a “nebulous pro-style” but hard to pin down because of the talent vacuum, and that certainly came true. I thought they’d use tight ends more than the previous OC Noel Mazzone had and they did (though that was an easy guess for anyone who’d observed his career) and in discussing TE coaches I took a veiled shot at Jimmy Lake at UW which turned out to be very prescient. I correctly called that Cruz and Plummer wouldn’t be the answer at QB and that Fisch would go with McCloud, though he was four games behind me in that realization. I thought the RB room would be fine and I think it was, but Rocker wasn’t on my radar screen. I had spent the third straight preview complaining about how upside-down the WR room was because of all the short untalented guys getting playing time, and am mercifully spared a fourth this time. I figured they might want to shake up the o-line and they did a bit, with Morgan taking over at tackle. But I thought they might do this at RT, and instead they kept Fears and moved Laie from LT to LG which I didn’t see coming. Other than that they stuck with the expected starters so my prediction of big changes didn’t come true, though given their performance in 2021 it’s hard to say who had the right of that disagreement.
I spent a lot of time in the defensive section discussing Don Brown’s defensive structure and the potential dangers it presented, which I think was worthwhile given how close the Wildcats played the Ducks and several other teams with a defense that I think surprised a lot of opponents by being better than its talent profile. I thought that the defensive line unit would be fine despite their departures, though I worried they’d have depth problems and didn’t predict that the solution would be for Brown to add so many 3-down looks to what had appeared to be a rigid 4-down career. I correctly predicted that Arizona would shake up its linebacker corps with new players, as they only used one backer of the five returners from the 2020 two-deep in the 2021 rotation. I said that the secondary would be the make-or-break unit in 2021 and I believe that was true (on the ‘break’ side), predicting exactly how the safety situation would play out and expressing doubt that it would work.