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A closer look at Arizona football’s incoming transfers

Western Michigan LB transfer Treshaun Hayward
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats recently completed their 2021 recruiting class, and it looks a lot different than in years past.

While the UA signed 18 high school and junior college players, it also added nine transfers from other FBS programs. This fits with a nationwide trend, as 247Sports’ Bud Elliott wrote that FBS schools signed more than 400 fewer high school prospects than in the 2020 class.

For many schools, the shift was the result of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the ability to observe and meet those recruits in person. For Arizona, though, it was a matter of trying to get up to speed quickly with a coaching staff hired after most of the 2021 class had already been signed.

“We obviously took a different approach based on the way we were structured as a team, based on our roster at this point,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “We were very actively involved in the transfer portal.”

Of the nine transfers, five still have four years of eligibility remaining since the NCAA isn’t counting 2020 toward a player’s eligibility. Additionally, a one-year transfer waiver is expected to be approved this spring so that no players have to sit out before getting to participate.

“It’s really like bringing in a high school kid,” Fisch said of many of his transfers. “Those are really like bringing in a high school kid that had a year of training. Just kind of redshirted their year and now we get to take advantage of that opportunity as well.”

As for how he managed to get so many to come to Arizona, that was a matter of selling them on what he and his staff are trying to accomplish.

“We start every conversation with the personal relationship, and how #ItsPersonal has really taken on a mind of its own in terms of the communication and how we talk to these kids,” Fisch said. “We also believe we can help those kids get to where their personal goals are. What we’re asking them to do is to trust us in regards to help them to become a pro, on or off the field.

“A lot of people that transfer from one school to another are transferring for two reasons. Either they want to get back closer to home, because they’re somebody from the West Coast or from Arizona that chose to go to a different school for one reason or another, or (they) feel like this is the best opportunity to help them become an NFL player.”

Here’s a look at each of Arizona’s nine incoming transfers, including comments from Fisch or an assistant coach on what they bring to the team:

RB Drake Anderson

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 3
  • Height, weight: 5-foot-11, 180 lbs.
  • Previous school: Northwestern
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 1,449 player in 2017, No. 91 RB, No. 17 in Arizona
  • Potential role: Backup, starter in two-back set

Anderson was the first of the transfers to commit to Arizona after Fisch was hired, and he also comes with the most experience of any of the offensive newcomers. In 21 games for Northwestern from 2018-20 he ran for 926 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Wildcats in rushing in 2019 and during the regular season in 2020.

He is the son of Damien Anderson, a former NFL running back who is Northwestern’s career rushing leader.

“Drake is not only powerful he’s quick,” UA running backs coach Scottie Graham said. “We’re lucky to have him. That NFL pedigree is always a good thing. He’s going to add a lot of value to our running back room.”

QB Gunner Cruz

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 4
  • Height, weight: 6-foot-5, 217 lbs.
  • Previous school: Washington State
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 863 player in 2019, No. 28 pro QB, No. 16 in Arizona
  • Potential role: Starter or backup

The first of three quarterback transfers Arizona landed, Cruz returns to his home state after giving the Palouse a try for two years. He lost out to Jayden De Laura for the starting job last fall and appeared in one game for the Cougars, throwing for 34 yards on 5-of-7 passing in mop-up duty at USC.

A product of Casteel High School, one of the top programs in Arizona, Cruz committed to the UA the day after entering the transfer portal last month.

“I think he has a great skillset, he has all the tools to be a great quarterback,” quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty said. “Has all the arm talent in the world, can make all the throws you ask.”

OL Davis DiVall

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 4
  • Height, weight: 6-foot-5, 285 lbs.
  • Previous school: Baylor
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 1,747 player in 2019, No. 93 OG, No. 1 in Maine
  • Potential role: Backup or special teams

DiVall actually signed with Arizona back in December, committing in November to Kevin Sumlin and offensive line coach Kyle DeVan. He redshirted at Baylor in 2019 and opted out of the 2020 season before putting his name in the portal.

Originally from Scottsdale, where he played for Notre Dame Prep, DiVall spent a year at a prep school in Maine before heading to college, meaning he’ll be one of the oldest freshmen in the country in 2021.

DiVall, who was considered the No. 93 guard in the country in the 2019 recruiting class, gives Arizona some helpful depth on the interior of the offensive line.

DE Jason Harris

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 4
  • Height, weight: 6-foot-7, 220 lbs.
  • Previous school: Colorado
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 289 player in 2020, No. 13 WDE, No. 8 in Arizona
  • Potential role: Starter or backup

The family connections weren’t enough to get him the first time, but when Harris decided to leave Colorado after one season without taking a snap his UA roots played a huge role in ending up in Tucson. The younger brother of redshirt junior linebacker Jalen Harris and son of Desert Swarm era star Sean Harris, Jason had the Wildcats out of high school in his final three along with the Buffs and Michigan State.

“I don’t know why he wasn’t here when we got here,” Fisch said, a not-so-subtle dig at the previous staff’s in-state recruiting failures.

Jason Harris brings perfect size for an edge rusher, which is what Jalen will be for Arizona this season after playing outside linebacker in 2020.

“This guy looks like the part of any defensive end you’ll ever see in the National Football League,” Fisch said. “And when he grows into his body, when he gets strong and aware of how big he can get, he can become a special player.”

LB Treshaun Hayward

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 1
  • Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 210 lbs.
  • Previous school: Western Michigan
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 1,800 player in 2017, No. 71 ILB, No. 45 in Michigan
  • Potential role: Opening game starter

While all of Arizona’s other transfers will be able to play multiple seasons in Tucson, if they so choose, Hayward is a one-and-done after spending four very productive seasons at Western Michigan. He has 237 career tackles, including 142 in 2019 when he was the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and that season he also had five tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss.

Fisch calls Hayward a “plug and play” addition, one that figures to start at one of the inside linebacker spots right away.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, new defensive coordinator Don Brown had kept tabs on him during his college career and was key at bringing him to the desert.

“I think he’s going to be a perfect fit,” Brown said. “He’s just a tackling machine. He’s all over the field.”

S Gunner Maldonado

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 4
  • Height, weight: 5-foot-11, 180 lbs.
  • Previous school: Northwestern
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 655 player in 2020, No. 50 S, No. 17 in Arizona
  • Potential role: Starter or nickel defender

The second Wildcat-to-Wildcat transfer from Northwester, Maldonado is another in-state kid that tried to get out of high school but couldn’t land. After one season in Evanston, where he recorded one tackle in three games, he’s rejoining former Northwestern and Chandler HS teammate Drake Anderson.

With Arizona he joins a position group that is thin on experience, so look for him to get a shot to start right away.

“Somebody has to run the show; Gunner is that dude,” safeties coach Chuck Cecil said.

QB Jordan McCloud

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 3
  • Height, weight: 6-foot, 193 lbs.
  • Previous school: South Florida
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 1,705 player in 2018, No. 42 dual QB, No. 274 in Florida
  • Potential role: Starter or backup

While most of the transfers had some sort of connection to Arizona before committing here, either via a coach or having been offered by the program or being from the state, McCloud is a wild card in that respect. Oregon was the only Pac-12 school that had interest in him

He’s also not someone who really needed to go elsewhere, since he started 17 games for South Florida including seven in 2020. His final appearance, in the War on I-4 against UCF, he threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns.

“I think that’s definitely an advantage that he’s played college football, he’s had reps and knows the speed of the game,” QB coach Jimmie Doughtery said.

QB Nick Moore

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 2
  • Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 182 lbs.
  • Previous school: Oregon State
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 3,455 player in 2017, No. 130 pro QB, No. 336 in California
  • Potential role: Scout team

The third QB Arizona added via transfer, Moore will be a walk-on after spending time at Eastern Washington and Oregon State. The brother of former OSU and NFL passer Matt Moore, he brings good genes and into a quarterback room that will have a lot of fresh faces for Fisch and Dougherty to work with.

CB Isaiah Rutherford

  • Years of eligibility remaining: 4
  • Height, weight: 6-foot, 192 lbs.
  • Previous school: Notre Dame
  • HS recruiting rankings: No. 208 player in 2019, No. 24 CB, No. 27 in California
  • Potential role: Opening day starter

It was a pipe dream when Arizona offered Rutherford out of high school in Sacramento back in 2018, since the 4-star prospect was also being pursued by the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon as well as Notre Dame. Yet when he decided to leave South Bend and play closer to home, the presence of a position coach at Arizona who has a history working with NFL corners played a big role in his decision.

“We’re going to play a lot of press man coverage in Don Brown’s defense, that’s something (where) you’d like to have long corners,” cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker said. “He’s going to bring some needed experience at that position.”