Football

Breaking down Arizona Wildcats’ football roster after National Signing Day

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College football rosters always go through a fair amount of turnover each year, much of that the result of seniors graduating and high school recruits coming on as freshman. But the combination of a pandemic, an impending blanket transfer waiver and a coaching change means Arizona’s 2021 roster is going to look quite different than the 2020 one.

Arizona signed 18 high school or junior college players in the 2021 recruiting class, inking 15 back in December and three more on Wednesday, in addition to a handful of priority walk-ons. They’ve also added nine players from other FBS schools via the NCAA transfer portal, eight of which will be on scholarship.

And because the NCAA didn’t count the 2020 season toward any player’s eligibility, Arizona is welcoming back 12 seniors for another go-around. Those “super seniors” won’t count toward the normal scholarship limit of 85, so the Wildcats are expected to have around 90 scholarship athletes on the roster for 2021.

That’s a far cry from the numbers the UA had toward the end of the dismal 2020 campaign, as injuries, opt-outs and departures led to the Wildcats regularly suiting up less than 60 scholarship athletes for games.

While Arizona will have a full compliment of players for 2021, experience will still be thin. Only 28 currently players are expected to be listed as juniors or seniors.

Though more turnover can—and probably will—happen before the season begins in September, below is a breakdown, by position group, of Arizona’s 2021 roster under new coach Jedd Fisch (NOTE: Years listed are projections based on the NCAA not counting 2020 toward eligibility, as well as the expected one-time transfer waiver being approved this spring):

Quarterbacks

Returning scholarship players: Kevin Doyle (R-Soph.), Will Plummer (Fr.)

Key departures: Grant Gunnell (transferred to Memphis), Rhett Rodriguez (transferred to Louisiana-Monroe)

New additions: Jordan McCloud (R-Soph., USF transfer), Gunner Cruz (R-Fr., Washington State transfer), Nick Moore (R-Jr., Oregon State transfer), Brayden Zermeno (Fr.)

McCloud is the most experienced member of this group, having started 17 games in two seasons for the Bulls. Plummer is the only other QB with FBS starting experience, doing so for one game last year when Gunnell was injured, while Cruz appeared in one game in 2020 for WSU.

Moore and Zermeno are coming in as walk-ons, but both could compete for the starting job, as Zermeno was previously committed to Princeton and had offers from Maryland and San Diego State.

Fisch and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty will have all spring and summer to sort out what will be the most important position battle on the team.

Running backs

Returning scholarship players: Nathan Tilford (R-Jr.), Darrius ‘Bam’ Smith (R-Soph.), Michael Wiley (Soph.), Jalen John (Fr.)

Key departures: Gary Brightwell (declared for NFL Draft), Frank Brown Jr. (entered transfer portal)

New additions: Drake Anderson (R-Soph., Northwestern transfer), James Bohls (Fr.), Stevie Rocker Jr. (Fr.)

Brightwell had nearly half of Arizona’s carries in 2020, but Wiley averaged more than 7 yards per carry when he got the ball. Anderson ran for 926 yards and five touchdowns in 21 games at Northwestern, leading the Wildcats in rushing in 2019 and during the 2020 regular season.

Smith opted out in 2020 but has appeared in 14 games in his career, while Tilford has made 21 appearances since 2017 but has just 53 career carries.

Rocker is a Tucson native from the same high school that produced Ka’Deem Carey, while Bohls is a two-way player who was recruited by the previous staff to play linebacker but new running backs coach Scottie Graham called dibs on him when he was hired.

Wide receivers

Returning scholarship players: Thomas Reid III (R-Sr.), Tayvian Cunningham (Sr.), Stanley Berryhill III (R-Jr.), Brian Casteel (R-Jr.), Jamarye Joiner (R-Soph.), Tre Adams (R-Soph.), Jalen ‘Boobie’ Curry (Soph.), Jalen Johnson (Soph.), Jaden Mitchell (R-Fr.), Dyelan Miller (Fr.), Roberto Miranda (Fr.)

Key departures: Ma’jon Wright (transferred to Middle Tennessee), Drew Dixon (entered transfer portal)

New additions: None

Arizona went the “addition by erasing subtraction” route at this position, convincing three wideouts—Berryhill, Curry and Joiner—to return to the program after entering the transfer portal, with Berryhill having committed to play at Ball State for 2021 before changing his mind. Wright briefly withdrew from the portal before entering a second time, which was disappointing because he showed such promise as a true freshman.

The Wildcats bring back nearly all of their production for new receivers coach Kevin Cummings to mold. He did great things with his players at San Jose State, and now the talent he has is stronger.

Tight ends

Returning scholarship players: Bryce Wolma (Sr.), Stacey Marshall (Jr.), Zach Williams (R-Soph.)

Key departures: None

New additions: Colby Powers (Fr.)

A forgotten position during the Kevin Sumlin era, Arizona now has an actual tight ends coach in Jordan Paopao who developed several future NFL TEs at Washington. That should translate into Wolma returning to the usage rate he had in 2017 when his 28 receptions were third-most on the team, while Marshall and Williams figure to finally get used in the offense.

Powers is an intriguing prospect in that he played quarterback at high school in Texas, but at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds he’s got the frame to develop into a sizable receiving target.

Offensive linemen

Returning scholarship players: Josh McCauley (R-Sr.), Edgar Burrola (R-Jr.), Josh Donovan (R-Jr.), Paiton Fears (R-Jr.), Donovan Laie (Jr.), Sam Langi (Jr.), David Watson (R-Soph.), Jordan Morgan (Soph.), Josh Baker (Fr.), Woody Jean (Fr.), Leif Magnuson (Fr.), Anthony Patt (Fr.)

Key departures: Robert Congel (transferred to Oklahoma), Jamari Williams (transferred to Middle Tennessee), Steven Bailey (graduated)

New additions: Davis DiVall (R-Fr., Baylor transfer), Luke Eckhardt (Fr.), JT Hand (Fr.)

The return of McCauley for another year—his sixth at Arizona—solidifies an offensive line that brings back 81 career starts, 27 by McCauley and 29 by Laie. Donovan, Fears and Morgan have started games in multiple seasons, while Burrola made six starts in 2019 before being suspended for the 2020 season due to COVID protocol violations.

DiVall, who did a prep school year before going to Baylor in 2019, may be a starter by the season opener depending on how he fits into new offensive line coach Brennan Carroll’s scheme, as is the case for the seven other freshmen that will be in the OL room.

Defensive linemen

Returning scholarship players: Aaron Blackwell (R-Sr.), Jalen Cochran (R-Sr.), JB Brown (Sr.), Trevon Mason (Sr.), Myles Tapusoa (Sr.), Jalen Harris (R-Jr.), Nahe Sulunga (R-Soph.), Kyon Barrs (Soph.), Eddie Siaumau-Sanitoa (R-Fr.), Shontrail Key (Fr.), Paris Shand (Fr.), Regen Terry (Fr.), Dion ‘Tank’ Wilson Jr. (Fr.)

Key departures: Roy Lopez (declared for NFL Draft), Mykee Irving (entered transfer portal)

New additions: Jason Harris (Fr., Colorado transfer), Alex Navarro-Silva (R-Fr., JUCO transfer), Evan Branch-Haynes (Fr.), Kevon Garcia (Fr.)

With defensive coordinator Don Brown going with a 4-3 front, Jalen Harris returns to the edge after playing outside linebacker in 2020. That means the D-line will have six guys with starting experience, including Brown, who returns to the mix after opting out in 2019.

Jason Harris, Jalen’s younger brother (and son of ex-Desert Swarm stud Sean Harris) was a big get from the transfer portal. UA legend Ricky Hunley has plenty to work with in his first year coaching the defensive line.

Linebackers

Returning scholarship players: Anthony Pandy (Sr.), Issaiah Johnson (R-Soph.), Derrion Clark (Soph.), Kwabena Watson (R-Fr.), Derick Mourning (Fr.), Jabar Triplett (Fr.)

Key departures: None

New additions: Treshaun Hayward (Sr., Western Michigan transfer), Ammon Allen (Fr.), Jackson Bailey (Fr.), DJ Fryar (Fr.), Matthew ‘Mojo’ Weerts (Fr.)

Arizona was extremely thin at linebacker in 2019, resulting in a pair of walk-ons (Rourke Freeburg and Parker Henley) combining for nine starts in five games. Freeburg was a revelation and should remain in the rotation even with Brown’s alignment going down to three LBs.

Heyward, the 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, is an instant starter—Fisch called him a “plug and play” addition on Thursday—and should take a lot of pressure off Pandy.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty, despite the beefed up numbers, and being able to add another LB from the transfer portal this spring might be warranted. Getting Allen, a Phoenix-area prospect, to come on as a walk-on was also a notable accomplishment since he could be a candidate for the “Viper” position Brown used at Michigan, as could Freeburg or several of Arizona’s safeties since that spot is essentially an LB/S hybrid.

Cornerbacks

Returning scholarship players: Malik Hausman (R-Jr.), McKenzie Barnes (Jr.), Christian Roland-Wallace (Soph.), Bobby Wolfe (Soph.)

Key departures: Lorenzo Burns (declared for NFL Draft)

New additions: Isaiah Rutherford (R-Fr., Notre Dame transfer), Jakelyn Morgan (Fr.), Anthony Simpson (Fr.)

No position other than quarterback has more of the new coaching staff’s fingerprint on it, as two of the three newcomers committed after Fisch was hired and named DeWayne Walker his cornerbacks coach, while Morgan was the lone commit who didn’t sign in December to stick with his pledge.

Rutherford was a 4-star prospect in the 2019 recruiting class and should be an instant starter, pairing nicely with Roland-Wallace, who with 13 career starts is the “veteran” of the group. If Arizona is going to add any more transfers this would be a good place to go, since Brown’s defense calls for lots of blitzing and the corners will be heavily involved in that.

Safeties

Returning scholarship players: Jarrius Wallace (R-Sr.), Rhedi Short (R-Jr.), Isaiah Mays (Jr.), Christian Young (Jr.), Jaxen Turner (Soph.)

Key departures: None

New additions: Gunner Maldonado (Fr., Northwestern transfer), Kolbe Cage (Fr.), Javionne Carr (Fr.), Dalton Johnson (Fr.), Logan Kraut (Fr.), Isaiah Taylor (Fr.)

UA legend Chuck Cecil inherits a group that has a mere 27 career games of starting experience, though Mays and Turner were impressive in 2020. Maldonado may start immediately, and the other freshmen will all get their chances.

And when it comes to the Viper spot (see above) you could see Young—who has eight career starts but opted out in 2020—or newcomer Taylor getting a shot there.

Specialists

Returning scholarship players: Lucas Havrisik (Sr.), Seth MacKellar (Soph.), Kyle Ostendorp (Soph.), Tyler Loop (Fr.)

Key departures: None

New additions: None

It’s pretty much the status quo when it comes to kicker and punter, with Havrisik’s return for a fifth season a big part of that. He was 6 of 7 last year and has 25 field goals for his career, while on kickoffs he’s almost an automatic touchback.

Loop averaged 43 yards per punt as a true freshman, the best for an Arizona player since Drew Riggleman averaged 45.3 as a senior in 2015.

And plenty of special teams veterans are expected back, including Reid, Freeburg, Nazar Bombata and Quinn Sullivan. Paopao and Keith Dudzinski, who coaches linebackers, will split special teams duties.

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