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Grading Arizona football’s position groups during the bye week

arizona-wildcats-football-position-grades-pro-football-focus-pac12-top-players-bye-2023 Arizona Athletics

Much like the NBA and MLB All-Star breaks don’t come at the exact midpoint of their sports’ respective seasons, Arizona’s bye doesn’t evenly split its season. But it’s still the perfect time to take a step back and evaluate how the team is performing to this point.

All in all, it’s been pretty darn good. The UA is 4-3 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 play, and is coming off a 38-point win at No. 19 Washington State for its biggest conference road win in 40 years. Two more wins over the final five contests will mean bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017.

The Wildcats are going to need strong performances across the board the rest of the way to achieve that goal. Improving on the grades each position group currently holds wouldn’t hurt, either.

Here’s our midterm grades, along with some data from Pro Football Focus:

Quarterbacks: B+

Top graded player: Jayden de Laura (76.0)

To quote Jedd Fisch earlier this week: “two is better than none.” Now imagine him saying that two years ago.

Noah Fifita has thrived since coming on in relief of an injured de Laura in the fourth quarter at Stanford, and after previously seeming steadfast in having his season-opening starter retain the gig when healthy, Fisch now sounds like he’s giving strong consideration to sticking with the “hot hand” after the bye.

That will mean going with the two-time defending Pac-12 Freshman of the Week instead of the man who went 8-8 as Arizona’s starter before getting hurt. De Laura had some stinkers during that run, but he’s also a big reason the Wildcats won several of those games.

Either way, the fact the UA has viable options at such a singular position is something that hasn’t been able to be said in years.

Running backs: A

Top graded player: Jonah Coleman (90.8)

Have you even noticed that Michael Wiley hasn’t been available for three-plus games? That’s how good—and deep—Arizona’s running back room has gotten this season.

Coleman has been at the forefront of that collective effort, following up a 143-yard effort at USC by tallying 168 scrimmage yards and three rushing TDs at Washington State. For the season he’s leading the team with 433 yards and his 6.66 yards per carry is fourth-best in the conference.

DJ Williams has been a solid contributor, getting 10 or more carries in four straight games, while Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke finally got a chance for some meaningful carries last weekend and ended up leading the team in rushing while breaking off a 40-yard scoring run.

And let’s not forget Wiley, who before suffering a high ankle sprain early at Stanford had become the school’s career leader in receptions by a running back.

Receivers/tight ends: B+

Top graded player: Tetairoa McMillan (73.2)

This group’s grade is partly due to having to compare the receiver group to the one from a year ago, when Dorian Singer went on to lead the Pac-12 in yards during the regular season. He’s moved on to a limited role at USC (14 catches on 22 targets, compared to 41 on 56 at this point a year ago) and most of his catches are going to T-Mac and Jacob Cowing.

That duo has been better than they were in 2022, with Cowing setting a school record with four TD catches at USC and McMillan fourth in the Pac-12 in yardage. Tight end Tanner McLachlan has picked up where he left off during his breakout performance last year, his 23 catches and two scores the same numbers he had after seven games in his first season with Arizona.

It’s after them that things drop off, and fairly considerably. Before catching five passes at WSU, Colorado transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig had only been targeted 17 times (with 12 receptions) on more than 200 pass snaps. And none of the younger receivers managed to step up and become that third option, though freshman Malachi Riley did earn a start at Mississippi State.

Offensive line: A

Top graded player: Jordan Morgan (78.7)

The line was the only iffy part of Arizona’s offense in 2022, but this year it’s been by far the best piece of the offensive puzzle. Despite an unexpected injury requiring a change of plans on the right side, this unit has been terrific game in and game out.

It starts on the outside where Morgan and Jonah Savaiinaea are both having forth all-conference seasons. Morgan has been tagged for 12 QB pressures, but that’s usually because he’s defending the opponent’s best edge, and only two of those pressures have resulted in sacks. Savaiinaea, meanwhile has looked stellar in his move from right guard to right tackle and yet still can dominate his old position when needed (and it has been on multiple occasions).

Wendell Moe at left guard and Josh Baker at center have each played more than 97 percent of the snaps, while Leif Magnuson has solidified himself at right guard after true freshman Raymond Pulido got in a bike accident right before the opener and has since gotten injured again after a brief debut.

Defensive line: A-

Top graded player: Jeremy Mercier (75.9)

Mercier, a senior walk has only logged 45 defensive snaps, but a season-high 16 of those were at WSU. And this wasn’t because of injury, or in mop-up time during the blowout, it was as a new wrinkle in a defense that keeps adding layers as the season goes on.

Arizona has played 12 different defensive linemen this season, and collectively they’ve been a huge part of a defense that Fisch believes is playing at an elite level.

Arizona has 19 sacks already this season, three more than all of 2022, and seven different defensive linemen have gotten at least a half-sack. Leading the charge is Michigan transfer Taylor Upshaw, whose 5.5 is already more than any Wildcat had a year ago.

Upshaw, UCLA transfer Tyler Manoa, Georgia transfer Bill Norton and redshirt freshman Isaiah Ward have combined for 27 of 28 starts, but because the line is so deep—and defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen rotates so frequently, by design—none of those starters have played more than 63 percent of the snaps. Upshaw and Ward are the only ones even to be on the field more than half the time.

Linebackers: B+

Top graded player: Jacob Manu (68.3)

Manu no longer leads the Pac-12 in tackles, but his 58 through seven games is still 20 more than anyone else on the team. Barring injury, he could be the first UA player with 100-plus tackles since Colin Schooler in 2018 (119).

Arizona’s base defense is a 4-2-5, but it has used a lot of “dollar” with three down linemen and seven defensive backs. In that set it’s been almost exclusively Manu, who is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the linebacker corps.

As for the rest of that group, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Oregon transfer Justin Flowe has looked very good in some moments and a little lost in others. Washington transfer Daniel Heimuli has been inconsistent, causing him to lose his starting gig and log only one defensive snap the last two games.

Freshmen Taye Brown and Kamuela Ka’aihue have both shown flashes, and each have good tackling grades, but they also have a lot to learn.

Secondary: B

Top graded player: Martell Irby (84.0)

Irby has been the top addition to a back line that is mostly comprised of returning players from last year’s roster, albeit several in much bigger roles. The UCLA transfer and converted running back has been valuable as both a slot corner in base packages and a second strong safety in the dollar.

Dalton Johnson has been the best overall player of the lot, one of the few remaining players from the 2021 recruiting class who is a stellar run defender and is tied for the Pac-12 lead with three forced fumbles. His rise has unfortunately come at the expense of snaps for Isaiah Taylor, though when Taylor is in there he holds his own, as has been the case when freshman Genesis Smith gets his chances.

Ephesians Prysock and Tacario Davis have combined to allow only 29 catches on 56 targets, and each got interceptions at WSU to get Arizona on the board in that category. And nickel corner Treydan Stukes has kept teams from making their third receiving option a viable one.

The weak link in the unit is Gunner Maldonado, who remains one of the lowest-graded safeties in the country, but the last two games have been his best of the season and if that continues after the bye he’ll go from a liability to an asset.

Special teams: C

Top graded player: Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei (91.0)

Arizona has used 54 different players on special teams, 20 of them getting at least 45 snaps. Other than kicker and punter, the non-offensive or defensive regulars who have established themselves as key special teams players are DJ Warnell Jr., Anthony Ward, Will Uhrich and Canyon Moses.

There haven’t been that many mistakes this season on special teams, though Kyle Ostendorp’s punting average of 39.3 is far below his career rate and Tyler Loop has both had a kick blocked and missed a 50-yarder that would have beat USC. That was his only attempt beyond 40 this season.

The return game has been almost nonexistent, with Wiley averaging less than 20 yards on four runbacks and Cowing running out of bounds after six yards on the lone return he had. Since Wiley got hurt it’s been all fair catches, and Cowing has only tried to return five of 32 punts for a combined nine yards.

While this area hasn’t killed Arizona, it hasn’t really helped much either.