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Arizona football: Projecting the Wildcats’ 2017 offensive depth chart

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We’ll see if this group can bring back the fast-paced offense

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

Last season, the Arizona Wildcats’ offense was not very good, to say the least.

The offensive line didn’t have a whole lot of experience and suffered a ton of injuries. At running back, Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor went down with season-ending injuries of their own and Orlando Bradford was dismissed from the team. This forced arguably the most productive wide receiver, Samajie Grant, to play running back.

With little protection up front, no running game, and inexperience at quarterback, the offense struggled mightily. Over 57 percent of Arizona’s drives were three-and-outs, which gave the defense no time to catch its breath.

Arizona’s offense has a lot of returning starters up front and in the backfield, however the biggest difference will be the height on the outside at wide receiver. Let’s take a look to see what the offensive depth chart might look like this upcoming season.

If you missed the defensive depth chart, check that out here.


Offensive line

There is not a lot of depth on the offensive line this upcoming season, making it more crucial than ever to keep this group healthy.

Layth Friekh has been the starter for the past few years now at left tackle and has been fairly solid at that spot. He now checks in at 6-foot-5, 282 pounds. Behind him is Cody Creason, a redshirt sophomore who had his name listed on the two-deep all of last season.

Christian Boettcher came in last season to take over for Freddie Tagaloa and will likely retain his starting spot.

This is where Michael Eletise comes in as a utility offensive lineman, because he does have that versatility of guard and tackle, and the offensive line doesn’t have a lot of bodies to begin with.

Nathan Eldridge was propelled into the starting center role late last summer as a redshirt freshman. Now with a year under his belt, the game should be slower for him, as he steps up as more of a leader on the line.

Levi Walton has the ability to come in as a guard, but it seems like he would be the next guy up at center should anything happen to Eldridge.

Jacob Alsadek provides the most assurance on the offensive line, now entering his fifth year in the program and fourth year as a starter. Redshirt senior Alex Kosinski was listed as his backup all of last season.

Gerhard de Beer might have to hold Creason to win his starting job at right tackle. De Beer was not the most consistent player last season, which you could expect from someone who would still be considered new to football.


Tight ends

Will we see the tight ends being utilized more this season? There’s a chance, now that Calvin Magee is taking over the position group. As the offensive coordinator working directly with the tight ends, he knows what this group can do and how to better utilize their bodies and skill sets.

Trevor Wood is a massive being at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. Jamie Nunley is an interesting second stringer here. He put on a ton of solid weight coming out of high school and has probably benefitted from Brion Anduze’s gruesome knee injury in the spring of 2016.

Third on the depth chart would be Bryce Gilbert, although with the lack of tight end usage, I would imagine he gets redshirted this season.


Wide receivers

This is a position that looks decent on paper, despite the lack of size. Shawn Poindexter was rarely involved in the offense last season, for whatever reason, but now there’s a clear lack of height with this group. The 6-foot-6, Poindexter is the prototypical wide receiver who can come down with a ball.

On the opposite side is another large body in transfer walk-on Zach Benjamin, who had to sit out last season due to (bogus) transfer rules. Benjamin checks in at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds. The staff raved about his breakthrough this spring.

There are really only two other wide receivers who would rotate on the outside — Cedric Peterson, who earned some reps late last season, and Cam Denson, who started carving out his own role late last season as well. Both are viable options to split reps, it’s just the lack of size on the outside that makes you cringe.

The slot is where a lot of talent hides in this offense. Shun Brown will likely be the focal point in the passing game, coming off an extremely strong sophomore campaign. On the other side it will likely be Tony Ellison, although I think this spot could be up for grabs.

Competing with Ellison will be senior Tyrell Johnson, who has been bogged down his entire career by injuries. If healthy, he can do create big plays. Also in that slot group, I like redshirt freshman Devaughn Cooper to eventually break out similar to how Brown did. I especially like the idea of having Cooper as the return man on special teams.


Running backs

This theoretically should be Arizona’s best position group on offense. The only issue here is the health concerns. Nick Wilson has not nearly been the same since his true freshman season in which he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Maybe he’s always rushing back from injury, the training staff is having issues or he’s just being overused, but I think it’s safe to say you can’t count on him for the length of the season. He made it through five games last season and only played in three of the final seven games in 2015.

I’m not overly concerned about the durability issue of J.J. Taylor in terms of constantly taking hits. He’s extremely well-built for only being about 5-foot-6, as he has about 170 pounds to his frame. But you just hope that his ankle is stable enough to keep his career going. Last season against Washington, we saw what this offense can do with a healthy Taylor.

Nathan Tilford is an extremely large running back. At 6-foot-2 and around 210-pounds, he has a ton of potential. He has the ability to be a co-starter immediately, but his production ultimately comes down to Wilson’s health and the remaining distribution of carries.

Tilford, a true freshman, was Arizona’s highest-ranked recruit in the 2017 class.


Quarterbacks

I figured I would list all the “viable” quarterbacks here because after the top two, it could really go in any order. There are a lot of quarterbacks on the roster, it’s just the fact that only one really has true game experience in Brandon Dawkins.

The offense will be in his hands. I don’t think there is any quarterback competition entering this season, even though Rich Rodriguez probably won’t announce the starter until Week 1. But in his fifth year in the program, Dawkins needs to be the guy who steps up. For him it all comes down to who is healthy around him.

Khalil Tate made some appearances last season, but he was thrusted into some pretty awful situations. That, and he looked overweight and out of shape last season, breathing heavy with hands on his hips after just a few plays. I don’t think his progression as a passer is quite there yet. Phenomenal athlete, but an extremely young decision maker still, which makes it imperative that Dawkins stays healthy.

The Donavon Tate experiment doesn’t add much value for me. We’re looking at a 28-year-old former MLB prospect who has a string of bad injuries and has probably been out of football for a good 10 years. Tate, a former four-star prospect who committed to North Carolina over Alabama, Florida State, Miami, Michigan and USC, might have already had his best days as a quarterback.

Freshman K’Hari Lane will be mildly intriguing. The kid had the most incredible stat line of any recruit in the country and held no Division I offers until Arizona came through. Likely penalized by the fact that he plays for one of the smallest schools in the state of Georgia, it’ll be interesting to see how Lane adapts to the college game.

Rhett Rodriguez knows his dad’s offense inside and out. He’ll be a great mind in the quarterback room and like a second coach when it comes to operating the offense and being able to read defenses. But as a true freshman, I just don’t see a whole lot happening here.