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Duck Dive: Arizona Football 2023 Preview

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

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Adam Green of Wildcat Radio 2.0 and AZ Desert Swarm for joining me on the Quack 12 podcast to discuss Arizona’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Arizona returns virtually every component of what was the 22nd ranked offense in F-plus advanced statistics last year: the quarterback, almost all of the skill talent, five of the starting offensive linemen, and every member of the coaching staff. It’s pretty straightforward to pencil in the Wildcats for a very similar offensive performance in 2023 – they have clearly identifiable strengths and weaknesses, and while I see no reason that any of their strengths should diminish at all, I also think that the same reasons they had certain struggles last year will still obtain in the upcoming season.

As I wrote about in last Fall’s midseason preview of Arizona, the Wildcats’ offense last year was pretty hard to stop between the 20s because they did two things very well (these trends persisted in the second half of the season, which I also charted): 15-yard in-breaking routes to four different talented receivers, and a room full of running backs who excelled at breaking big outside runs. Those things added up in raw stats to being the 20th ranked offense in total yards per game.

The passing offense wasn’t particularly efficient on a per-play basis over the entire season, 206 successful designed passing plays vs 216 failed ones, given the down & distance (excluding garbage time). However, they had a pretty good adjusted yards per pass attempt number at 8.3 YPA, and an excellent explosive passing play rate, with nearly 20.5% of passing attempts gaining 15+ yards. The key here was returning starter #7 QB de Laura’s comfort with throwing precision passes over the middle to #2 WR Cowing, #84 TE McLachlan, #4 WR McMillan, and #5 WR Singer, who’d then turn downfield and get another 5-10 yards after the catch for reliable 20+ yard gains.

All but Singer of that group return. It looks like they’re going to try moving Cowing to be an outside receiver and have #12 WR Green take his place in the slot, though on the podcast Adam brought up the alternate solution of keeping Cowing inside and putting #16 WR Jones, who’s 6’4”, on the outside. At any rate, we both agree that head coach Fisch prefers not to rotate the receivers at all so whatever they decide on it’ll probably be the same four guys on almost every snap, similar to last year.

There were two weaknesses in the passing game, one which I think will persist and the other we’ll have to see about. The first is that I think de Laura’s passing inventory is somewhat limited – I don’t really see him throw a true deep ball (meaning one that has 30+ air yards, as opposed to an intermediate route that the receiver turns into a big play with yards after the catch) because his windup is kind of wonky and I don’t think he’s got great accuracy on those throws, and at any rate Singer was their real deep-threat receiver on that type of pass. In addition this offense just doesn’t have much that’s reliable beyond those square-ins by way of creative screens or RPOs, and I suspect that Fisch doesn’t want to complicate things much.

The second issue is how de Laura scrambles when the pocket breaks down, which happens a lot (and I think will continue to be an problem). Adam and I have discussed this a few times now, and we both agree that he’s good at keeping the play alive and has a great self-preservation instinct, but if the team is behind he’s got a temptation to play “hero ball” that can result in some spectacularly counterproductive plays. This is the area that he’s got the biggest opportunity to clean up as a fourth-year starter, and what I’m most interested in seeing him work on in 2023.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats’ running back unit is remarkable. They return all four backs who carried the ball last year: #6 RB Wiley, #3 RB Coleman, #8 RB Williams, and #21 RB Luke (each of whom averaged at least 5.0 YPC in 2022), as well as #23 RB Rocker who was very productive in 2021 but got squeezed out last year and yet has decided to come back. Luke got injured as a true freshman last year but is healthy now and was impressively fast in the Spring game, everyone else is a proven talent for a very deep room. Adam and I discussed some roster management issues here on the podcast, there’s a possibility they lose someone here before the current portal window closes at the end of the month but it’s also possible they hang on to the entire room.

On my tally sheet, Arizona had what at first glance seem to be mediocre rushing numbers: 120 designed run successes vs 109 failures, or a pretty average 52.5% efficiency rate, with decent but not elite yardage and explosiveness at 5.7 adjusted YPC and 17.5% of runs gaining 10+ yards. However, breaking out inside vs outside running tells a very different story: when rushing inside the tackles they had an abysmal 38.3% success rate, but running for the D-gap or wider they shot up to a championship-caliber 62.5% rate.

Adam and I discussed this at length on the podcast, because I think this discrepancy is the main factor holding Arizona back offensively: they can’t run the ball up the middle, and so they tend to stall out in the redzone. Despite being a top-20 offense in total yards, they ranked a very poor 82nd in redzone touchdown percentage in raw stats in 2022. Because the defense compresses in the redzone, it’s much harder to run outside, those square-in routes are harder to throw, and without a credible threat of an inside run, the defense gets to distribute their linebackers and safeties off the line to contain the alternate ways the Wildcats tried to score. Over and over again when charting this team I saw them almost effortlessly drive the field between the 20s, only to wind up kicking field goals. Fisch has repeatedly said they’ve made this their biggest point of emphasis to improve in the offseason, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen until they get better at pounding the ball inside.

The offensive line had seven different players make starts over the last year, due to a couple of injuries. Two of them have run out of eligibility, the starting left guard Josh Donovan and starting right tackle Paiton Fears. #77 LT Morgan, one of the best tackles in the conference and an NFL prospect, got hurt and decided to return to Arizona for 2023, but has still been in recovery during Spring practices. #75 C Baker should return to his job, and #72 LG Moe should get the full-time job he filled during three starts as a true freshman last year. #71 OL Jo. Savaiinaea played RG last year as a true freshman (he didn’t grade out exceptionally on my tally sheet but true freshmen rarely do); in the Spring game they moved him over to RT and switched #58 OL Langi from the left side of the line to RG.

It’s possible those five are the complete starting line for 2023, or as Adam suggested they could take another portal addition at tackle and move Savaiinaea back to RG with Langi as the sixth man. They could use one; the depth situation is okay with six other returning scholarship players, but none has any college experience or were highly recruited, with an average talent rating in the low 3-stars among all returners.

The main question is whether they’re going to make any improvements. I find myself skeptical on that matter, since players like Baker and Langi were upperclassmen last year and they still couldn’t open holes, and I’m not wild about moving a young guard to tackle (or finding a mystery portal player who didn’t gel with the rest of the unit during Spring practices). I suspect that getting better on the o-line, as is usually the case, is simply going to lag several years behind the talent upgrade of the skill players. Fisch has recruited some promising linemen, including a 4-star and a couple high 3-stars in recent classes, but until those guys come of age and that talent level becomes the rule rather than the exception, I think Arizona is looking at the typical Pac-12 situation of line play that doesn’t match the rest of the offensive firepower.

Arizona v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


Arizona’s defense was one of the worst in the country last season, ranking 123rd in F+ adv stats, and 100th or worse in just about every raw stat including 3rd downs, redzone touchdowns, and explosive plays surrendered. On my tally sheet, what really killed them was their efficiency rush defense: 103 successfully defended designed run plays vs 213 failed ones, or 32.5% which is just miserable. They gave up 6.2 adjusted YPC and over 20% of opponents’ designed runs gained 10+ yards.

While they aren’t changing the coaching in the defensive front (the only staff change at all is the CB coach), the Wildcats will be starting more or less from scratch in terms of player personnel in 2023, with five of the six starters plus the two most used backups in the front departing. Those are defensive linemen Kyron Barrs, Hunter Echols, Jalen Harris, Paris Shand, and Dion Wilson, and linebackers Kolbe Cage and Jerry Roberts. Echols was by far their most talented and valuable player in the front and will be difficult to replace coming off the edge; he was more or less the only defender that blockers had to focus on.

Arizona has stocked the defensive front units pretty well with bodies to choose from in reconstructing the two-deep, and it also seems well structured in terms of having the right number of guys of various body sizes to fit their 4-2. It’s just a question of how they’re going to work out since there’s been very little experience for any of them in their careers so far. A decent amount of unproven talent has come in via the portal here (at least on paper according to the 24/7 composite), and as Adam and I talked about on the podcast, Arizona is in a position where they have to roll the dice on all of them and there’s a chance they score a big improvement … but they could just as easily come up snake eyes.

There are four returning defensive tackles who got a little backup time last year (though not enough tape for me to form an opinion about any of them): #55 DT Branch-Haynes, #93 DT Kongaika, #98 DT Savea, and #46 DT Uiagalelei, though the last didn’t appear in the Spring game with no explanation I can find. They brought in three more through the portal: #45 DT Norton from Georgia who didn’t play much and I think is carrying some bad weight, #92 DT Manoa from UCLA who had been converted to an offensive lineman in Westwood, and #54 DT Randall from the FCS ranks. There’s also a Juco and a true freshman coming in for the Fall, and another returner who didn’t play last year, #91 DT I. Johnson. That’s ten bodies and they probably only need eight, and I’m expecting a bit of portal attrition by the end of the month. They need a 0- and a 3-tech given how the front is structured; I suspect that Manoa and one of the returners, maybe Kongaika, to get the start, but this is probably going to be fluid throughout the year given the uniform lack of experience across the unit.

EDIT: The day after publication Arizona lost Branch-Haynes to the transfer portal, but added former Indiana starting DT Sio Nofoagatoto’a. I haven’t had the chance to watch his film and he didn’t practice with the Wildcats in the Spring, but since he’s instantly the most experienced defensive player in the front I would expect him to become a starter in Tucson.

Last year under DC Nansen the ends used a traditional fist-down DE on one side and a stand-up end, probably better described as an OLB, on the other. The latter role was almost always played by Echols and for the first time in his career finally got to shine (he had been at USC under multiple coordinators prior, and never utilized properly in my opinion). Echols’ backup during the few times he was off the field was another transfer who’d come in from Utah, #44 OLB Mercier. I liked his aggression (although it sometimes resulted in penalties) and I think the starting job will be his in 2023, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be as effective as Echols given the big disparity in their on-paper talent rating – it’s going from a mid 4-star to a low 3-star. The likely backups will be #90 OLB I. Ward and #34 OLB Kaufusi (a true freshman walk-on but the son of the DE/OLB coach).

The other end of the line is trickier to predict. The returner I saw the most last year was #99 DE R. Davis, as well as a bit of #8 DE Lane, though that’s not saying much. They were both true freshmen last year; Davis was a mid 3-star, Lane a low 4-star, and both were used sparingly. I think both still need to bulk up at least another 25 lbs to set the edge properly and I didn’t think they’d hit that target in the Spring game (Lane was playing the above OLB position as part of the way they split up the Spring game teams but I think Adam was right on the podcast that he’ll be back to a fist-down end in the Fall).

The returner who definitely is big enough is #6 DE Harris (not to be confused with his older brother Jalen who was a starter last year and has now graduated), who’s 6’7”, 250 lbs, and was a low 4-star in the 2020 class. But the younger Harris has barely seen the field in his entire career either at Colorado or Arizona, and was with the twos in the Spring game last Saturday, so I don’t really understand what the holdup is. Arizona also brought in a transfer from Cal, #48 DE Patu, who was a backup OLB in the Bears’ 3-4 defense but was playing fist-down with the twos last Saturday. I’m not sure what to make of Patu, he was a borderline 4-star in the 2019 class but his tape has never popped for me over four years in Berkeley and he has a total of 13 tackles in his entire career.

The Wildcats had an early enrollee low 3-star true freshman playing with the ones on the other team, #41 DE Ju. Savaiinaea (brother of the o-lineman), and a couple more true freshmen mid 3-stars joining in the Fall.

So the options for DE are two ostensibly talented, right-sized upperclassmen but who’ve never been trusted with real playing time, two true sophomores who were backups in this terrible defense last year and are badly underweight, and three low-to-mid 3-star true freshmen, two of whom weren’t around for Spring ball. I have no idea who I’d pick out of this group and I’m not optimistic for the results.

Washington v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

The inside backers bring back the only starter in the front from last season, #5 ILB Manu who was a true freshman and a mid 3-star in 2022. I think he’s a reliable enough tackler, though undersized at 5’11” and 220 lbs, and it made sense to me that he was playing with the ones in last Saturday’s Spring game.

The guy he was playing next to was Oregon transfer #10 ILB Flowe. I suspect that everyone involved with these two programs, fans and staff alike, are aware of both his enormous physical gifts and the problems of his undisciplined on-field play, as well as the injury history that cost him the 2020 and 2021 seasons of developmental time. It remains to be seen if the change in scenery helps him become the elite linebacker he has the potential to be, or if he continues to overrun tackles, get himself out of position, and be enough of a liability to result in another benching. Arizona is certainly going to give him the chance to prove himself – the risk-reward calculus is definitely worth it for a program that has nothing to lose defensively.

There are two serious options here to back up Flowe and Manu, or possibly replace them. #15 ILB Heimuli, a former 4-star from UW, also came in through the portal and was playing with the ones for the other team last Saturday. I was never impressed with his film in Seattle but he had quite possibly the worst position coach in the league and it could be that having literally any other staff working with him will result in better play. Next to him in the Spring game was returner #40 ILB Allen, a former low 3-star from the 2021 cycle whom I didn’t see much last year but Adam says the staff is happy with.

There are only two other scholarship returners, #32 ILB Weerts who’s a low 3-star from 2021, but I didn’t see him last year and he only played a bit with the threes last Saturday, and 4-star Michigan transfer #11 ILB Solomon, who has never played and wasn’t even listed on the Spring game handout (Adam and I think he might be a ghost). There are three true freshmen linebackers in the 2023 class but two don’t arrive until the Fall and the early enrollee is a low 3-star who didn’t play in the Spring game so I doubt they’re real options for starters. However, one of the Fall arrivals, Leviticus Su’a, is a low 4-star so there’s a chance he breaks through in Fall camp given how small this room is. I saw three walk-ons playing with the twos in the Spring game, including a converted safety.

The inside backers represent a low-quantity, high-variance unit – nobody but Manu has much experience and even he’s undersized and was part of a lousy defense, and there’s not enough guys to hedge their bets so there’s a substantial risk the whole thing is a big bust again. But the athletic potential of the bluechips is certainly real as well – we’ll just have to wait and see.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Oregon at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Compared to the rush defense, Arizona did okay against the pass on my tally sheet – 191 successfully defended designed passing plays vs 214 failed ones, or a 47% success rate (only a bit underwater, a win for how little talent this squad was working with). And they limited opposing offenses to 7.4 adjusted YPA, with about 16.5% of their passes gaining 15+ yards – those are about average yardage and explosiveness numbers for a Power-5 pass defense, and all things considered, average is better than expected.

While the efficiency number has a lot to do with the efficacy of the pass rush (and the Wildcats didn’t have much of one), those last two figures tend to be more associated with the secondary since they’re about the coverage getting quarterbacks to check down to shorter passes and limiting yards after the catch with good tackling. I’ve got some good grades on my tally sheet for Arizona’s defensive backs, though unfortunately for their 2023 prospects the best coverage grade went to cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace who’s transferred to USC, and the best tackling grades went to safeties Jaxen Turner and Christian Young who’ve left the team as well.

Replacing Roland-Wallace is going to be tough. There are two low 4-star returning corners on the roster who were playing with the ones in the Spring game, #7 CB Prysock and #2 CB Rutherford, but both had been passed up for the other starting spot last season by a walk-on, #20 CB Stukes. Curiously, Stukes had been switched to boundary safety for the Spring game, and the other ones were another returning backup, mid 3-star #23 CB Ta. Davis, and 2-star Juco #17 CB Yates. A couple of redshirt freshmen, #24 CB Celestine who was a mid 3-star and #29 CB Dunn who’s a walk-on, were with the twos, along with unrated FCS transfer #35 CB Flores.

Of the returners, I really only saw enough tape on Stukes to form an opinion, and I thought he graded out modestly. I can only infer what that means for why Prysock and Rutherford were behind him, though the former was a true freshman and there has been a position coaching change here so maybe new CB coach Richardson sees things differently. It seems simple enough to pencil in those two as the starters with Davis and Yates as the primary backups, though how they’ll actually play is a significant unknown given the lack of experience and new coach – there’s quite a range of possibilities here with the projected starters’ talent potential but some real doubts given what happened last year.

Figuring out the safeties is a lot harder, and I think these battles are going to continue through the Fall as well as generate some more portal activity by the end of the month. The Wildcats return the starting nickel, #9 DB Maldonado, but he graded out fairly poorly for me last season and I think they brought UCLA transfer #13 DB Irby out of retirement to replace him (Irby has played a bunch of positions and Bruins fans were surprised when he resurfaced on Arizona’s roster).

Arizona also returns Turner and Young’s primary backups, low 3-star juniors #4 DB Taylor and #14 DB Warnell. However, there are several interesting personnel moves here that give me pause about just marking them down as the new starters – Stukes’ position change in the Spring game is one, lightly used backup #43 DB D. Johnson (whom Adam says the staff likes) playing with the ones at boundary safety is another. The Wildcats have taken four DBs in the 2023 class (actually five, but the last one I think is a dedicated corner and doesn’t arrive till Fall), and each of those four safeties enrolled early, were playing in Spring, and have a substantially higher talent rating than any of the returners as mid-to-high 3-stars, particularly borderline 4-star #12 DB G. Smith. I think all of those factors set up some classic old vs new jostling for position which strikes me as elemental to Fisch’s roster turnover project.

Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview, I think I described fairly well the factors that made Arizona’s 1-win season in 2021 a misleading record and why they were due for an offense-led jump in results. I got the reasons why the five-man QB room was actually just a two-man race right, though it turns out my skepticism of de Laura having the job locked down from the get-go was unwarranted. I’ll have to take a black eye on my predictions for the running back room, I thought they would consolidate around Rocker and one freshman as a backup, and instead they went with Wiley and Williams backed by two freshmen and Rocker got no carries at all. That Wiley turned in such a great senior season (6.8 YPC on 118 carries) was a genuine shock given that he averaged 2.7 yards worse than that his entire previous career; I have no idea how that happened or how to predict such things in the future. I completely whiffed on McLachlan at tight end; I didn’t even mention him but instead wrote about everybody else who barely saw the field. That one I think I should get a pass on though, nobody in their right mind would have predicted an unrated and injured FCS transfer to come in and become essentially a speedy Y-receiver in a 4-wide offense that really wasn’t using true TEs at all. I got all the productive players in the WR corps correct, and although I didn’t see coming that Fisch would only be using three of them, I did get the top three in order. I nailed the o-line pretty well, the five starters turned out to be just who I settled on, including dismissing some transfers for a freshman, and the conclusion that the offensive improvement would stall out due to line problems.

I spent some time discussing the possibility that Nansen would go with the 4-down front that I suspected he wanted instead of the 3-down front it would have been easier to go with, and I think that was worthwhile considering how Echols’ DE/OLB position wound up being used. I correctly predicted the starters and backups along the line and thought they wouldn’t be great but okay and need some development time given their youth, so it’s difficult to parse what it means that all the starters in the middle transferred out at the end of the season. I essentially punted on the enormous linebacker room other than correctly predicting Roberts would get the start, and I didn’t even mention Manu by name, though I think saying that it was a mess that they were going to have to experiment with over the season and lose non-productive guys to attrition was exactly correct. I predicted the secondary precisely.

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