Editor's note: Please welcome Steve Apter to our team of writers. Steve graduated from the U of A in 2010.
The Arizona Wildcats are having their best summer recruiting period in recent memory and have assembled a recruiting class for the ages. Will all of their current commits sign on the dotted line on National Signing Day seven months from now? Probably not. Would the Wildcats trade a couple of their three-star commits for a few more four-star talents? Sure — but this recruiting class is important for momentum at the very least. This is a head start every Wildcat fan will tell you they’re excited about.
How things will all shake out is anyone’s guess but here is a look at what the 2017 depth chart on offense might look like.
Quarterback: Anu Solomon (Sr.)
Runners Up: Brandon Dawkins (Jr.), Khalil Tate (So.), Braxton Burmeister (Fr.)
Quarterback mobility isn’t all about north-south running ability (which new-comers Burmeister and Tate have a lot of), and Anu possesses excellent in-the-pocket mobility. His greatest attribute is his pocket presence and the ability to extend plays. While Rich Rod’s offense is predicated on getting the ball out quickly, the ability to extend a play here and there on a key third down or in the redzone is certainly a useful trait for all signal callers.
Arizona finished ninth in the Pac-12 in redzone efficiency — the four teams above the Cats in the South Division all were top 30 nationally in converting redzone opportunities (Arizona was 80th). Missing opportunities to put points on the board within your opponent’s 20 yard line is a huge tempo swing and one that a young defense breaking in a new scheme can ill-afford.
Ultimately, Arizona’s zone read requires a lot of quick decision making and familiarity with the system is a key differentiator for securing playing time. That being said, Dawkins certainly had his moments last year and seems hungry to win this job, as are aforementioned 4-star talents Tate and Burmeister. Beyond the 2017 season it seems hard to imagine both Tate and Burmeister being comfortable holding a clipboard for too long. Can they really expect highly-touted kids to hang around and wait their turn?
QB is definitely a position of intrigue moving forward, but Anu gives the Wildcats the best chance to win this season and next.
Starting Outside Receivers: Cam Denson, DeVaughn Cooper
Runners Up: Bryant O'Georgia, Drew Dixon, Shawn Poindexter, Brian Casteel, Warren Jackson
Starting Slot Receivers: Tony Ellison, Tyrell Johnson
Runners Up: Shun Brown, Darick Holmes
The Wildcats are loosing three highly productive seniors in Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey, and Samajie Grant after 2016. Ideally Rich Rod and Co. would love to add a highly-touted receiver to their 2017 class like four-star Bruce Judson or big fish five-star Joseph Lewis.
In the meantime, there are a few playmakers at receiver that are already slated to be on the roster in 2017. The most exciting to see will be Denson, who spent his first two years pitching in on a depleted Wildcats secondary. Denson was the Arizona Player of the Year in his senior season at Salpointe HS, where he scored 19 touchdowns on offense. The Wildcats are hoping to unleash that firepower over the next two seasons.
Cooper can take the top off the defense with top-end speed, provides solid blocking, and should get some playing time this season. That would put him firmly in the mix in 2017. Poindexter and Jackson (both over 6’5"), plus O’Georgia (a member of the UA track and field team as a high jumper) bring some much-needed athleticism to the WR corps.
Local product Drew Dixon possesses some great athleticism as well, and despite playing quarterback in high school, should play wide out for the Cats (see stacked QB depth chart). Brown and Tyrell Johnson have the best stop-start quickness on the roster and according to Rich Rod will see some time in the backfield this season. Ellison will be this team’s most complete receiver in the slot in 2017 and has been running some crisp routes and garnered high praise in the spring of 2016.
An under-the-radar player to watch is 2017 commit Casteel who shows some nice ability to high point the ball on his high school film and is a gritty, OKG-type player. Casteel played some corner in high school and just seems like a player who will bring some toughness and production to the Cats, maybe not in 2017, but a name to keep an eye on in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arizona’s top ranked 2017 recruit Greg Johnson on offense at some point although a lot like Cam Denson, they need him more at corner as the roster stands now.
Starting Tight End: Trevor Wood
Runners Up: Brion Anduze, Jamie Nunley, Bryce Wolma, Bryce Gilbert
Rich Rod likes his tight ends to play a versatile role including lining up in the backfield, along the line, and split out as a receiver. The Wildcats have amassed a nice cache of big-bodied hybrid blocker/pass-catchers who can really help the offense run more smoothly. Wood and 2016 senior-to-be Josh Kern were pretty competitive in last year’s tight end battle prior to Wood going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. He is a serviceable pass catcher, but will be relied on more to be a stabilizing force as a blocker for an offensive unit that struggled to keep their quarterbacks upright in 2015.
Anduze suffered a gruesome knee injury in spring practice this year but was impressive as a pass catcher and could provide a nice tandem with Wood’s blocking ability, assuming he makes a full recovery. A knee cap dislocation is an injury that typically takes athletes a full year and half to start feeling like themselves again, which may create opportunities for other tight ends on the roster to step up.
Nunley possesses a big 6-foot-4 frame, and should benefit from his grey shirt season in 2015. 2017 signee Bryce Gilbert might actually see more time as a true receiver much like Austin Hill or Terrence Miller. The best TE prospect of the 2017 group might be Bryce Wolma, a nice three-star get for the Wildcats. Wolma’s role in high school more closely mirrors the type of hybrid role Rich Rod envisions for his tight ends than any other signee he has brought in to date.
Starting Running Back: Nick Wilson
Runners Up: Orlando Bradford, Zach Green, Branden Leon, J.J. Taylor, Nathan Tilford
Arizona has quietly been churning out running backs for years: Mike Bell, Chris Henry, Nic Grigsby, Ka'Deem Carey...Running Back U has always seemed to have a workhorse in the backfield and in 2017 they’ll have a stable large enough to run their own Kentucky Derby.
There could be as many as ten backs on the roster moving forward, and for that reason there are likely going to be transfers/decommits at this position. Whatever
Nebraska Calibraska is selling is being bought up by recruits across the state and Tilford is already planning a visit there despite his Arizona commitment. Tilford would be an embarrassment of riches at this position with his 200-pound frame.
This is another position that Greg Johnson could see some snaps at during his freshman campaign. He’s going to be hard to keep of the field.
Wilson should clearly be the top dog here. A senior backfield with Anu should be exciting for Arizona fans. Don’t count out Bradford however. He was a load to bring down last season and if Wilson continues to be plagued by injury, Bradford has the potential to take the lead role without the intention of returning it to Wilson. Bradford has shown the chops to be a highly-productive, 30-40 carry back in the Pac-12.
Green and Leon had the best 2016 spring out of the other backs currently on the roster. 2016 signee J.J. Taylor was electric at Centennial HS. Taylor makes dynamic cuts in the open field and always keeps his legs churning. If he adds some weight by 2017, he could be a candidate to leapfrog Green and Leon on the depth chart. Tyrell Johnson and Shun Brown could be used as nice change-of-pace backs as well.
Starting Tackles: Layth Friekh, Gerhard de Beer
Runners Up: Harper Sherman, Keenan Walker
Starting Guards: Michael Eletise, Jacob Alsadek
Runners Up: Cody Creason, Christian Boettcher, Alex Kosinski, Cody Shear
Center: Nathan Eldridge
Runner Up: Levi Walton
The zone read scheme doesn’t include a lot of trap, sweep, draw or counter runs (Coach Rodriguez describes it as "the simplest offensive line scheme in the country"). Many of the plays in the zone read usually give a variation of three options from a shotgun formation: hand the ball off, dump it into the flat/screen pass or throwing a quick slant or medium route (very rarely throwing deep routes by design).
Therefore, the o-line usually doesn’t have to stay in protection very long or pull/move laterally after the snap. Essentially the line maintains similar blocking assignments on every snap to prevent opposing defenses from keying on recognizable formations and giving the quarterback the freedom to choose the best option based on what the defense shows post-snap. The Wildcats suffered a season-ending injury to projected starting center Carter Wood less than a month before the 2015 season started, and despite the simplicity of their scheme, they really struggled.
The 2017 season should have much more stability with three seniors and talented depth. Friekh was, at times, Arizona’s best lineman last season, and should be the leader of this unit while protecting Solomon’s blind side. Alsadek will be a three-year starter by his senior season and like Friekh, preformed at a high level in 2015.
South African Gerhard de Beer was one of the lineman that had to play multiple positions last season filling in at guard against USC and Utah after transitioning from Lene Maiava’s back up at right tackle. De Beer’s athleticism (won the Pac-12 discuss title in 2015 and finished 17th at the NCAA Championships) and length (6-foot-7) profile him as more of a tackle . He should slot in on the right side in 2016 and have a nice high upside in 2017.
The highest rated recruit in the 2016 class is Michael Eletise, who received offers from nearly every Power Five program in the country including Florida State, Alabama, and Auburn. Eletise can dead-lift nearly 600 pounds and still has a ton of athleticism for his 6-foot-3, 300 pound frame, posting a 4.83 40-yard dash time in 2015. A couple years with renowned strength coach Chis Rounds could turn Eletise into a mauler in the run game with the ability to dominate at the point of attack and block downfield.
Eletise will start the season behind senior Freddie Tagaloa in 2016, and while Tagaloa has been solid, he hasn’t been dominant in any stretch during his tenure at Arizona. Eletise will compete for playing time as a true freshman and is easily the best NFL prospect on the roster.
Rich Rod has said he expects to give a look to seven or eight players at center in 2016, and while that seems like an exaggerated estimate, it assuredly implies the Wildcats do not have a player locked in as the starter at an important position. Although the Wildcats likely 2016 starter Zach Hemmila will graduate, Levi Walton and Nathan Eldridge will be in competition for snaps this season.
The Wildcats will have some good depth at guard and tackle with Cody Creason, Cody Shear and 2015 grey shirts Keenan Walker and Harper Sherman, so some tinkering with center could help the Wildcats fill a need and give one of their younger players a chance to step up in a less demanding position. Sherman and Walker were both 4-star talents by some recruiting services and represent two of the most talented recruits the program has the opportunity to develop at the tackle position in the Rich Rod era. Judging by how many issues the Wildcats had with snapping last season, surely they are hoping to not have to train players on the fly at center. Eldridge (on the scout team) and Walton (in a reserve role) both got some meaningful experience at center in 2015 which bodes well for their playing time moving forward.
Arizona was 82nd nationally in sacks allowed last season, giving up 2.3 sacks per game (3.5 in losses) and by 2017 they should be vastly improved in not just protection, but in opening holes up for runners, and stabilizing depth to deploy in the case of injury.