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Arizona football notebook: Injuries piling up for Wildcats as team enters second half of season

RB Drake Anderson is among several Arizona players who may miss the Washington game due to injury
Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It isn’t just the quarterback position where Arizona is dealing with an outbreak of the “injury bug,” as coach Jedd Fisch called it during his Monday press conference. The Wildcats may also be without key members of its offensive and defensive line as well as the running back corps for its next game.

Fisch said redshirt junior guard Josh Donovan, redshirt senior center Josh McCauley, sophomore defensive tackle Kyon Barrs and redshirt sophomore running back Drake Anderson will all be “game-time decisions” for Friday’s home matchup with Washington. He said Anderson, who only played five snaps in the 34-0 loss at Colorado, is the most likely to not be able to play.

“He has an upper shoulder injury,” Fisch said of Anderson, who has started the last three games and is the UA’s leading rusher with 239 yards and has scored the Wildcats’ only rushing touchdown.

Donovan missed the Colorado game due to a leg injury, with second-year freshman Josh Baker starting at right guard in his place. McCauley, who played all 75 offensive snaps against Colorado, has started 12 straight games at center and 33 for his UA career, and if he can’t go true freshman JT Hand could make his first career start.

Barrs, who has started five of six games on the D-line, played a season-low 40 snaps against Colorado but was Arizona’s second-highest graded player according to Pro Football Focus. He leads the UA with 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss, and if he can’t go senior Leevel Tatum III could make his first start with the Wildcats.

A transfer from Fresno State, Tatum was graded at a 92.9 against Colorad by PFF including 92.0 against the run as the Wildcats allowed a season-low 117 rushing yards.

Two other players—besides injured QBs Gunner Cruz and Jordan McCloud—after confirmed out for the Washington game, but not because they’re hurt. Fisch said senior defensive lineman JB Brown, whom he previously announced will not play in any more games for personal reasons, will continue to practice, while senior linebacker Treshaun Hayward “will not be participating due to personal reasons.”

Hayward, a graduate transfer from Western Michigan, started the first five games at Mike linebacker but did not make the Colorado trip.

Arizona normally includes a depth chart in its weekly game notes but has yet to release one for this week.

Jamarye Joiner staying at WR, for now, but there’s a twist

Joiner was recruited to play quarterback at Arizona by Rich Rodriguez, though he didn’t sign until after Kevin Sumlin was hired. After one season at that position he was converted to a wide receiver, resulting in a breakout 2019 campaign in which he led the UA in receiving yards and touchdowns.

Now Joiner’s old QB skills are being tapped into again in light of Arizona’s dearth of scholarship passers. This was already the case before McCloud got hurt, as Joiner threw a TD pass against UCLA on a trick play, then several of his snaps against Colorado were not at the receiver position.

“We ran a double pass, or double reverse pass-type deal and he made a really wise decision, we were trying to hit Stevie Rocker up the sideline and 53 came flying through the B gap, so he had to throw that ball away which was very smart, not trying to be heroic, when you only feel like you have a couple passes,” Fisch said. “He ran the ball, I thought, relatively well from, we’ll call it the Wildcat position. And the other one or two he was just making a decision to hand the ball off.”

Does that mean Joiner is moving to quarterback on a permanent basis, at least for the rest of this season? Not so fast, Fisch said.

“I think that his position of receiver is necessary for him right now, but I think that there’s gonna be some opportunities that we can help bring him along (at QB), to be able to be serviceable, if the time comes that we would have to do something like that,” he said. “Clearly, we have to find ways to move the ball when we’re in a interesting position at quarterback. I’ve never personally been in a position where the depth chart is where it’s at. So you have to be prepared, right? You have to be prepared for (a) what if scenario the next time. We have six games to play and one scholarship quarterback, so we know we need to make sure that we can get Jamarye, maybe, some more opportunities as well.”

Asked if Joiner’s play at quarterback as a freshman in 2018 will factor into things, Fisch said he doesn’t know enough about his past experience at that position to grade it.

“I don’t really know how long he was even in the quarterback room, how many reps he actually took at the position, how quickly that transition occurred,” he said. “I’ve only known Jamarye as a wide receiver, and unfortunately, most of the time that I spent with Jamarye (was) as an injured wide receiver. He had the spring ball injury. He was kind of coming back from a surgery, then a re-surgery, then coming back again. So there’s a lot mentally there just to learn the receiver position.”

Preparing for the ‘second half’

Fisch referred to his first season at Arizona being at “halftime” since six games have been played and six remain. Because of that, he expects his team to treat the remainder of 2021 like they would the second half of a game.

“None of us have ever been part of a game in our lives that at halftime we don’t say the score is 0-0,” he said. “So, the way we look at it is, we’ve just finished the first half of this season, and it is now time to go play the second half of the season.”

Fisch said the team is in “great mental spirits” despite starting 0-6 this season and losing 18 consecutive games overall. He points to the “great effort” he continues to see in all facets of the game, particularly to how hard players run to the ball on defense and try to move the pile on offense.

“But just like Kobe Bryant, man, you can go out there and try to outwork everybody, unless your shots go in, in the end, it just doesn’t matter,” Fisch said. “So at this point in time, we need our shots to fall. That’s why Kobe was so special, his shots went in. And at this point we need to start getting some shots to fall for us.”

Fisch said on Sunday—the team took Monday off instead, despite the short week for a Friday night game—he showed his defense 38 clips of them playing “fantastic football” against Colorado, regardless of the score, as examples of how players were doing their job and not trying to do more than that. He said that when things get bad players can have a tendency of trying to do too much and make up for the mistakes of others.

“If we do things right, we can maybe take out those mental concerns, or stop thinking ahead of what ifs or what happened if or what if this didn’t happen or what do we do next, and just say, hey, if I’m supposed to run a corner route at 12 to 20 yards I’m gonna run a corner route 12 to 20 yards, I’m not going to try to speed it up because I’m not sure about if the ball is going to come out on time,” he said.

“Or as I said, on a blocked punt, to (Anthony) Pandy, don’t try to figure out what (long snapper) Seth MacKellar is going to do and if he can block an A-gap rush, let him block the A-gap rush and you block the B-gap rush, everyone do your job. And I think what happens is when you get injuries, or when you start thinking like, how do we get out of the rut, you start saying to yourself, is there something more I should do outside of my job? And that’s our big message is, do your job and trust the process and recognize that we can all build this thing together. As we’re building this thing, good results will come.”

Non-injury updates on Cruz, McCloud

Shortly after throwing a pick-six that made it 20-0, Cruz was shown on TV with a towel over his head and looked to be crying. It wasn’t known that the time that he’d just suffered a season-ending injury to the thumb on his throwing hand.

Fisch said he’s spoken with Cruz several times since then and that he is “doing okay” but he is understandably uncertain about his future.

“I talked to him yesterday, he was in a good place, but nervous and concerned about what does it mean,” Fisch said. “It’s a significant injury for a quarterback, because it’s on your throwing hand. It’s a substantial rehabilitation. But he’ll fight back and, and be stronger for it, and hopefully have an opportunity to come back for spring football.”

As for McCloud, who had ankle surgery on Friday and is expected back in time for winter workouts, he said he’s already making plans for the 2022 season.

“Jordan called like eight members of the team and said I can’t wait for (the opener at) San Diego State next year,” Fisch said. “That was his mentality.”

Fisch said the key for both QBs while on the mend is doing everything they can outside of football to be prepared to come back when healthy.

“It’s now, can you win the rehab?,” he said. “Can you win the surgery, can you win the offseason, so when it’s your time, can you find yourself ready to go? With Gunner I am going to have the same conversation ... which was, these things are unfortunate, and no one can control injuries. Truthfully. But what you can control is every day after that injury, and in your mind is, can you use this time to get yourself in a position where you’re in incredible condition, and you could work your lower body. Can you mentally get yourself in a position where you learn and know the offense in such a way that when you come back in spring football, your answers are quicker, you’re able to make faster decisions? And for that, our football is going to become better.”