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2023 Team Talent Preview: Arizona

Has Jedd Fisch gotten things turned around in Tucson?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Arizona at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the 3rd part in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 984.5 (8th)

Quarterback- 113.4 (7th)

Starter- Jayden de Laura (89.1)

Reserves- Noah Fifita (48.6), Brayden Dorman (48.5)

This position is somewhat overshadowed by de Laura settling a sexual assault case from his time in high school a few months ago. Whatever you think the result should’ve been, de Laura wasn’t suspended, is representing the Wildcats at Pac-12 Media Day today, and will be their starting quarterback come the beginning of September.

The transfer from Washington State had one of the best all-around seasons for an Arizona quarterback in quite some time. He gave the Husky defense fits with his ability to escape the pocket and make plays downfield. There’s not a lot of experience behind him though if de Laura were to be unavailable with RS freshman Noah Fifita and his 26 career snaps serving as the backup and true freshman 4-star Brayden Dorman likely taking 3rd on the depth chart. Both clearly have potential but will be wild cards if ever forced into action.

Running Back- 119.1 (7th)

Starter- Jonah Coleman (83.4)

Reserves- Michael Wiley (71.4), DJ Williams (65.9), Rayshon Luke (54.4), Stevie Rocker (52.9), Brandon Johnson (37.7)

There has been a lot of running back by committee in recent years for Arizona and the good news for that is it means a lot of guys have seen a decent amount of playing time. Four Wildcat backs have played at least 120 offensive snaps in their careers led by super senior Michael Wiley and his 17 career starts. Wiley finishes 2nd in the formula here in part because a bad 2021 season (3.3 ypc) weighs down his career numbers. But when healthy he was the best weapon in the Wildcat backfield averaging 6.9 ypc and chipping in nearly 350 receiving yards in the passing game for 11 total touchdowns.

The other primary option will be Jonah Coleman who ran for 5.0 ypc as a true freshman but doesn’t add much value as a receiver. If he takes a major leap with his first full year in college in the books then he has a chance to break out. Auburn transfer DJ Williams was 3rd on last year’s team in carries averaging 6.2 ypc. With the entire unit returning from a year ago this group has a chance to be a major headache for opposing teams if the blocking holds up in front of them.

Wide Receiver- 283.9 (8th)

Starters-Tetairoa McMillan (85.8), Jacob Cowing (74.0), Montana Lemonious-Craig (62.5)

Reserves- Malachi Riley (43.6), Devin Hyatt (41.0), Carlos Wilson (38.4), Kevin Green (35.8), Jackson Holman (35.4), AJ Jones (32.0)

This is a unit with a good amount of top-end talent whose depth quickly falls off a cliff. The Wildcats were in the conversation for best WR unit in the Pac-12 last year competing with UW and USC. They were set to return all their major weapons until leading receiver Dorian Singer transferred to USC. Arizona did a good job replacing him in the spring with Colorado transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig who has 500 career receiving yards. Still, the unit looks much less dangerous without Singer.

The top-2 are still elite. Tetairoa McMillan is one of the obvious breakout candidates in the country after Arizona won a major recruiting battle to secure his signature as nearly a 5-star recruit. He looked the part from day one wracking up 700+ yards on 18.0 yards per reception as a premium deep threat. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him go for 1,200+ this year. Also returning is UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing who led the team with 85 catches as the underneath receiver. He made both Phil Steele and the media’s preseason 1st team all-conference list.

Beyond that group there’s almost no experience. The rest of the receivers have combined for just 36 total snaps since the Wildcats played their top-3 guys almost exclusively last year. That means there are 7 former 3-star recruits who are either true or redshirt freshmen making up the rest of the depth chart.

Tight End- 95.4 (9th)

Starter- Keyan Burnett (58.9)

Reserves- Tanner McLachlan (37.8), Dorian Thomas (35.2), Tyler Powell (20.0)

Southern Utah transfer Tanner McLachlan should be the starter despite the difference in scores in my formula. He finished with 34 catches for 456 yards as their leading tight end despite his humble origins. But there’s potential with Burnett. He was a 4-star true freshman last year and struggled but clearly has raw talent if he puts it all together this summer. Last year Burnett was more of a blocker but we’ll see if he can break out. Thomas is a true freshman looking to secure the 3rd spot in the rotation.

Offensive Line- 390.3 (7th)

Starters- RT Jonah Savaiinaea (72.0), LT Jordan Morgan (64.1), C Josh Baker (59.9), LG Wendell Moe (48.7), JT Hand (48.4)

Reserves- RG Raymond Pulido (47.3), Elijha Payne (40.8), Sam Langi (40.7), Rhino Tapaatoutai (34.8), Tylen Gonzalez (30.9), Grayson Stovall (28.1)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

This is going to be another young but talented offensive line for Arizona. Jonah Savaiinaea started every game last year as a true freshman and held his own which is impressive. He should be even better in year 2 and is on Phil Steele’s preseason all-conference 2nd team. Wendell Moe also took over as a true freshman starter by the end of the year and should take over full-time at left guard this year. There’s a chance we see another true freshman starter this year as incoming 4-star Raymond Pulido will battle with veteran Sam Langi in the fall to see who wins that right guard spot.

Jordan Morgan and Josh Baker though are the two true veteran presences at the two spots you’d want them: left tackle and center. Morgan has 25 starts under his belt and struggled his first few years before putting it all together last season to make honorable mention all-conference (he’s on Steele’s preseason 4th team). He should be one of the better left tackles in the league this year. Baker struggles a bit in run blocking but has experience with 18 career starts.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 879.6 (10th)

Defensive Line- 182.5 (8th)

Starters- Tyler Manoa (67.5), Tiaoalii Savea (65.2)

Reserves- Sio Nofoagatoto’a (53.6), Taitai Uiagalelei (46.7), Bill Norton (46.1), Jacob Rich Kongaika (41.5), Myles Tapusoa (31.0)

This unit wasn’t very good last year and yet still saw its two starters transfer to programs with a reasonable chance at a CFP berth (Kyon Barrs to USC and Paris Shand to LSU). That’s how desperate teams are for experience on the interior of the defensive line. Arizona also went shopping for DL experience in the portal. The 3 top guys in the rotation should be Manoa, Savea, and Nofoagatoto’a. The first two each transferred from UCLA and Sio was at Indiana last season. All of them have put up fairly average career PFF grades but at least have combined for 16 power conference starts.

The leading returner in snaps played is Uiagalelei who was forced to start 5 games as a true freshman and him taking a leap would really help shore up the rotation. Another 3 players have at least 100 career defensive snaps but Manoa is the only DL on the team with a career PFF grade over 60.0 which is the baseline for average.

Edge Rushers- 167.6 (10th)

Starters- Russell Davis II (70.5), Taylor Upshaw (51.2)

Reserves- Orin Patu (48.9), Isaiah Ward (42.9), Tristan Davis (32.3), Dominic Lolesio (28.8)

Only 2 players on last year’s Arizona team had more than 2 sacks and no one had more than 4. Both of the ones with 4 (Hunter Echols, Jalen Harris) are now gone which means the edge spot was a bit of a barren wasteland. Coach Fisch tried to shore that up in the portal bringing in Michigan transfer Taylor Upshaw who has 2 career starts and Cal transfer/Seattle native Orin Patu. Both figure to at least be heavily in the rotation.

My system really likes Russell Davis who played 222 snaps as a true freshman last year with a high PFF grade even if he only got through for 1 sack. He’s another of the young breakout candidates on the roster. Phil Steele though has his fellow true freshman compatriot Isaiah Ward starting instead despite only garnering 33 total snaps last year in garbage time. Regardless, this unit as a whole has only 2 career FBS starts and seems a clear weak link on the team even if there’s a little upside due to the overall youth.

Linebackers- 148.6 (9th)

Starters- Jacob Manu (55.5), Leviticus Su’a (47.4)

Reserves- Justin Flowe (46.6), Sterling Lane (44.8), Daniel Heimuli (41.8), Taye Brown (31.7)

This will be one of the more fascinating preseason camp battles to watch across the conference. Manu seems like the most entrenched player after starting 7 games last year as a true freshman. He’s joined by a lot of highly touted players without a lot of college playing time.

The most intriguing are Oregon transfer Justin Flowe and Washington transfer Daniel Heimuli. Each has 2 career starts and between 200-250 career snaps but well below average PFF grades. Flowe of course is a former 5-star while Heimuli was a 4-star player out of high school. Each will be trying to bounce back in their new home. Fighting with them are true freshman 4-star Leviticus Su’a and redshirt freshman 4-star Sterling Lane. There’s a lot of recruiting talent in this room but we’ll see if Arizona can convert that into on-field results.

Cornerbacks- 220.2 (10th)

Starters- Ephesians Prysock (71.5), Treydan Stukes (48.6), Canyon Moses (40.8)

Reserves- Emmanuel Karnley (40.1), Martell Irby (39.3), Arian Parish (39.1), Tacario Davis (38.6)

Last year Arizona had one of the worst pass defenses in the country and that was with veteran CB Christian Roland-Wallace. CRW has now transferred to USC and this is a fairly uncertain group. Former walk-on Treydan Stukes is representing the defense at Pac-12 Media Day today and started every game for Arizona last year. Joining him as a pretty clear starter is Prysock who started 3 games as a true freshman a season ago with an above average PFF grade.

That 3rd spot should be generally up for grabs with 5 players between a 38.6 and 40.8 score in my system. The veteran is UCLA transfer Martell Irby and Steele thinks the job will go to redshirt freshman Tacario Davis and his 75 career defensive snaps. Moses, Karnley, and Parish are all true freshmen and will have to be critical parts of the rotation even if none of them takes over a starting spot. If at least one of them is good from day one though it would a tremendous boon to the secondary.

Safeties- 160.8 (12th)

Starters- Isaiah Taylor (59.6), Gunner Maldonado (58.2)

Reserves- Genesis Smith (45.6), DJ Warnell (40.4), Gavin Hunter (35.6), Dalton Johnson (21.0)

Both starting safeties from a year ago have departed leaving a group that’s not completely lacking in experience but also isn’t very deep. Isaiah Taylor started one game last year and was the 3rd safety in the rotation so he moves up a notch now entering his 3rd year of college. Meanwhile, Gunner Maldonado played a lot at the cornerback spot but is expected to move back to safety this season. DJ Warnell transferred in from UCLA where he has 2 career spots and will provide a veteran presence. Otherwise, at least one of true freshmen Genesis Smith and Gavin Hunter will likely be a part of the rotation.

OVERALL TEAM- 1,864.1 (10th)

Jedd Fisch has exceeded my expectations making this Arizona team somewhat competitive in short order after Kevin Sumlin turned the roster into a dried out husk. The total number of stars (from a recruiting perspective) is way up there from where it was a few years ago and that provides a lot of hope for the future. This group of players though is still probably at least a year away from really challenging for anything other than sneaking into a bowl game. The Wildcats lost 5 starters off last year’s team to the transfer portal and really needed to keep all of them to have designs on 8+ wins.

Almost all of Arizona’s toughest conference games are at home this year which provides a chance at a high ceiling and a low floor. There’s a chance the Wildcats could emerge as the clear top of the middle/bottom of the conference like WSU did last year. If so, they could conceivably win road games at Stanford, WSU, ASU, and Colorado. Then all it takes is a single upset to get up to 7 wins. But if this team is still too young to consistently win on the road then it could be a long season with home games against 5 of the top-6 teams in the conference (USC, UW, OSU, UCLA, and Utah). We should get a chance early to see which way things might be tilting when they travel on the road in the non-con to play at Mississippi State in Week 2.