Freshmen will contribute a lot for the Arizona Wildcats in 2017 for two reasons.
For one, there’s a lack depth at several positions and there have been too many injuries under this regime to think that this roster can stay healthy.
And secondly, when comparing this freshman class to others, it seems to have a lot more talent from top to bottom (to be fair, the 2014 class looked great on paper and turned out to be the biggest disappointment of them all).
For the 2016 class, seven of the 17 true freshmen played last season in some capacity, and with this 2017 class there should be no hesitations to get them on the field.
Arizona really loaded up on safeties in this class and given the youth and two-deep there, I don’t see them coming in to contribute immediately like Tristan Cooper and Isaiah Hayes did, especially when you can get a fifth year out of them. But injuries do happen here and specials teams is a solid start.
The pass-catching group is interesting as a whole, as Arizona brings in two wide receivers and two tight ends. Given the usage of tight ends in the past, it’s hard to imagine that Bryce Gilbert or Bryce Wolma are called upon. Meanwhile Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon are two guys who probably could be used and earn a role, but don’t need to be rushed in.
Unless we see more quarterback injuries than last season, I can’t imagine either of the freshmen — Rhett Rodriguez or K’Hari Lane — see action, either.
There are two very talented defensive ends coming in with this class, Jalen Harris and My-King Johnson — and both certainly have the potential to play immediately. They do have large frames, but they need to be filled out. Harris is currently listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, while Johnson is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. If they can bulk, they can earn a role early.
So now that shrinks the list down to a select few where the need for bodies is glaring.
The main theme of this will be the lack of depth at linebacker on this roster. Arizona brought in six linebackers in this class, and there might be a few surprises. While some of them did not make this list, I wouldn’t count them out entirely, especially mid-year enrollee Jose Ramirez.
At cornerback, there is also a chance for Tony Wallace to have an opportunity to play immediately.
Alas, let’s begin the list.
5. Lucas Havrisik, kicker
Kickers might not be the most exciting position to talk about, but I would be shocked if Havrisik doesn’t take a share of the workload, considering Josh Pollack was doing kickoff, field goals and punting for much of 2016.
Havrisik left high school with one of the strongest legs in the nation. Just a few weeks ago we saw him makes three 60-yard field goals in a row.
Depending on what new special teams coordinator Brian Knorr sees in Havrisik, and if he can trust him, Havrisik can win field goal duties. At the minimum, I think Havrisik comes in for kickoffs, where he averaged over 70 yards a kick in high school.
4. Joshua Brown, middle linebacker
There’s a strong need at linebacker, which is why the staff brought in six linebackers in this class.
Brown was coached by former Wildcat Antonio Pierce at football powerhouse Long Beach Poly, where he finished with 102 tackles (15 for loss), four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He was named Defensive Player of the Year as well.
Brown played his senior year at 6-foot-1, 243 pounds, but has trimmed his weight down to 230. He has a strong football pedigree, coming from a great coaching staff and one of the best programs in the nation.
Three of Brown’s brothers have also played college football, including Jayon Brown of UCLA, who was just drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fifth round of the NFL Draft in April.
Arizona lost its top five linebackers from a season ago, so Brown has a great shot to come in immediately and establish a role at middle linebacker.
3. Colin Schooler, middle linebacker
The Arizona staff found Schooler fairly late in the recruiting process, and things seemed to have clicked from the beginning, despite Schooler picking up interest from UCLA, USC and Washington.
Now it appears as if Schooler could be in line for some playing time at the middle linebacker spot. He comes in with a solid frame at 6-foot-2 225-pounds and has the entire summer to add to his frame.
He’s going to remind a lot of people of Scooby Wright III, with an instinctive, downhill style of play. At Mission Viejo High School, Schooler carried the ball 101 times for 1,161 yards and 19 touchdowns. On defense, he finished with 77 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions. That led to Schooler being named the Orange County Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
Picking between Brown and Schooler is splitting hairs. I would be shocked if one does not end up playing a significant role this season as true freshmen. And given Arizona’s lack of depth, it would not be surprising if both of them didn’t step up into a big a role, much like Isaiah Hayes and Tristan Cooper did last season in the secondary.
2. Tony Fields, outside linebacker
Tony Fields was one of my favorite commits of this class. He’s an attacking linebacker that led Desert Pines High School to its first state championship in program history.
While I have already mentioned the need for middle linebackers, the weak side also has glaring holes of its own. For the time being, it looks like redshirt freshman Gavin Robertson will come in and start after switching from safety this spring.
Behind him there is not a lot of depth. Jacob Colacion could be in the mix, but from what Rich Rodriguez said this spring about Fields, it seems like the true freshman will be contributing early on.
Fields comes in a little undersized at 6-foot, 200 pounds, but he had all spring to bulk up, digest the playbook and understand his role.
1. Nathan Tilford, running back
Tilford is physically ready to play college football. He enrolled early at Arizona, practicing all spring, holding 215 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He was a top 250 player in the 2017 class and had Nebraska and USC trying to pry him away from Arizona.
During his senior year at Colony High School, Tilford rushed for 2,031 yards on 223 carries, finishing with 30 touchdowns. He also added 24 catches for 601 yards and eight touchdowns.
There’s nothing really more to say here. He was one of the top running backs in the country in high school and he had all spring to learn the offense and adjust to the Pac-12 speed.
Nick Wilson has been sidelined for 11 of the past 19 games, and of the eight games he played, there were six games where he carried the ball six times or fewer.
J.J. Taylor gets a bad rap for his durability because of his 5-foot-6 frame and season-ending ankle injury he suffered early last season, but he is incredibly strong at 170 pounds, and can handle an extensive work load.
Even if Taylor is fully healthy, Tilford is a do-it-all back with the speed and power that can help limit the touches for Taylor and split up the work load to constantly keep fresh legs on the field to wear down the defense.
Barring injuries (Arizona’s running backs have been prone to them), Wilson and Taylor are ahead of Tilford on the depth chart, but Tilford can be the punisher to finish off gassed defenses late in games.
And if Wilson and/or Taylor are forced to miss time, Tilford is more than capable of stepping in in a larger role.