The tight end position has been grossly underutilized for the Arizona Wildcats under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
But now Mazzone has the quarterback of his choosing, Grant Gunnell, who can operate an offense exactly how he wants. Pair this with two strong options at tight end, and perhaps there is hope.
On Tuesday, Mazzone talked the position group up.
“We’re playing a little bit more with our tight ends and different personnel groups,” he said after the second day of spring practice.
This comes after a disappointing two-year stretch for the tight end room. Tight ends have caught just 12 passes for 140 yards over the last two seasons.
In 2018, Bryce Wolma recorded five catches for 69 yards. Jake Peters caught one pass for a loss of one yard and Zach Williams hauled in one catch for 10 yards. In 2019, Wolma was the only tight end to record a catch, notching five for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Compare those two season to 2017, Rich Rodriguez’ final season, where Bryce Wolma was the fifth-leading receiver on the team as a true freshman with 28 catches for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Jamie Nunley had recorded six receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown, in addition to Trevor Wood’s two catches for 14 yards.
To be fair, the depth hasn’t quite been there for Arizona the last few seasons. When Mazzone arrived in 2018, he inherited Wolma and true freshmen Peters and Williams along with redshirt freshman Nunley.
Nunley ended up medically retiring prior to the 2019 season, Williams transitioned outside to wide receiver that offseason, and Peters entered the transfer portal midway through the season.
“We’ve had Bryce (Wolma) and when we got here we didn’t have a lot of depth at that spot. And so as a coach, you’re always like, ‘Okay, well if I put this whole package in for the tight end and I only have one and he gets hurt in the second play of the game, then I’ve pretty much wasted a lot of time there,’” Mazzone said about the lack of depth.
While the depth wasn’t there, it still feels like a bit of a weak excuse, as you have to get your best players on the field and put the ball in their hands. After Wolma’s stellar freshman campaign, it’s hard to swallow the fact that his production was cut in half in his sophomore and junior seasons.
Wolma is a well-rounded tight end who now enters his final season at Arizona. And while the staff elected not to recruit a tight end in the 2019 class, they landed an absolute steal in the 2020 class in Stacey Marshall. Marshall has received glowing reviews through the first two days of camp, providing some optimism for the position group.
“So it gives us a lot more flexibility to build some packages around the tight end. I’m really excited about it. I’m excited about both him and Stacey (Marshall) getting in there and helping us football team,” Mazzone said.
Marshall, a 6-foot-5, 248-pounder out of Hutchinson Community College, was a surprise commitment for the class during the early signing period. The signing came a few days after Arizona’s highest ranked and long-time tight end commit Drake Dabney backed off his pledge.
The Hutch Dragons finished the season ranked No. 4 in the NJCAA with a 10-2 record. Powered behind a run-first offense, Marshall was an integral part of the rushing attack as an in-line blocker. He finished the season with five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s that real big guy out there,” Mazzone said when asked about Marshall. “It’s a little bit new, it’s going pretty fast for him right now. But he’s got a great attitude about it, came from an offense where basically he just stood next to the tackle and blocked the guy in front of him.”
Arizona was Marshall’s lone Power-5 offer, which is very shocking when you watch the tape. Marshall is physical and displays great strength in the run game. He also shows off terrific speed and athleticism as a pass catcher. He was originally ranked as a two-star prospect at the time of his commitment, but has since received a bump to three-star status.
“When you put the film on him, what jumped out is his effort, how hard he played,” Mazzone said. “And then when he walks in the room, you go, ‘Okay, well, this looks good, too.’ He’s 6-5 and moves, and it’s not unbelievable, but he’s got really good ball skills.”
Marshall’s size, athleticism and versatility all give him a strong chance to contribute in his first year at Arizona. For now, it’s all about accelerating the learning curve and taking advantage of spring practice.
“We’re asking him to do a lot more, so his head’s spinning a little bit, which is to be expected. But his enthusiasm for wanting to be good is important and he has that enthusiasm.”
If Wolma can get more opportunities in the pass game and find the success he had in his freshman year, the offense opens up dramatically. Include the potential of Marshall and we’ve got ourselves some hope for this position group if Mazzone commits to it.