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Predicting Arizona football’s season-opening depth chart

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Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

We know who Arizona’s starting quarterback will be. Sort of. But what about the rest of the team?

UA coach Jedd Fisch said he will release a depth chart next Monday, and that only a few positions remain undecided in terms of who will start the Sept. 4 opener against BYU in Las Vegas.

There’s no need to wait that long, though. We’ve got you covered, or at least we think we do with the projected depth chart below:

Quarterback

  • Starter: Gunner Cruz, Will Plummer
  • Backups: Jordan McCloud

Fisch is playing it safe by treating Cruz and Plummer as co-starters, though he’s said Cruz will be first on the field against BYU. Expect this shared role to last only as long as necessary, either because one guy shows to be clearly better (or far worse) than the other.

Waiting (patiently?) behind them is McCloud, the South Florida transfer whom Fisch says suffered from missing spring ball but could become a “viable option” later in the season if the need arises.

Running back

  • Starter: Michael Wiley
  • Backups: Drake Anderson, Stevie Rocker Jr., Jalen John, Clay Markoff

Wiley was limited during spring ball because of a hamstring injury but looked great in training camp, getting the vast majority of the first-team snaps. Fisch has said the days of a workhorse back are over, so while Wiley will no doubt surpass his season total of 31 carries from each of the previous two seasons it probably won’t come in one game.

Instead, look for the Wildcats to rotate several ball carriers into the game, depending on the set and scenario. A great spring and equally good fall camp has Rocker in line to be the first Arizona RB to get 100 carries as a true freshman since Nick Wilson in 2014.

Markoff, a graduate transfer from Washington State, gives the UA a true fullback for the first time in a long time and will see a lot of time in short-yardage and goal-line packages.

Wide receiver

  • Starters: Stanley Berryhill III, BJ Casteel, Tayvian Cunningham
  • Backups: Boobie Curry, Jalen Johnson, Anthony Simpson, Dorian Singer

Fisch said Tuesday that Cunningham, Curry and Johnson are still competing for a starting spot. We’re going with Cunningham because of the tremendous improvement he’s shown in his strength and route running since last season.

Berryhill and Casteel are locks based on their experience and how well they’ve taken to the new offense. Curry and Johnson, at 6-foot-2 apiece, are bigger options that may pair better with when Arizona only uses one or two receivers and wants to isolate on the edge.

Simpson and Singer will get some looks as well after an impressive camp. And let’s not forget Jamarye Joiner, who is recovering from foot surgery and has targeted the Week 4 Pac-12 opener at Oregon for his return. Once he’s healthy it will only add to Arizona’s depth at this position.

Tight end

  • Starter: Bryce Wolma
  • Backups: Alex Lines, Stacey Marshall Jr., Zach Williams

You may very often see Arizona putting two, if not three tight ends on the field at once this season, an almost unheard of concept under the previous regime. Whatever the alignment, though, Wolma will get first crack at the targets, with Lines next in line after following tight ends coach Jordan Paopao from UNLV.

Marshall is a big target who has good hands, and if he can stay healthy he could be a good short-yardage threat, while Williams is probably the most catch-first of the group. All will earn their time via blocking, first and foremost.

Offensive line

  • Starters: Josh Donovan, Paiton Fears, Donovan Laie, Josh McCauley, Jordan Morgan
  • Backups: Josh Baker, Edgar Burrola, David Watson, Matthew Stefanski Jr.

For better or worse, Arizona is going with basically the same offensive line from 2020, as the five likely starters combined for 19 starts. There’s some wiggle room on the left side with both Laie and Morgan capable of playing left tackle and left guard, while Baker is the first sub at guard if either of those guys has to sit (as was the case for the last scrimmage when Morgan had a boot on his foot).

Having Burrola back after a COVID-related suspension a year ago is like having a new addition, as he and Fears split the starting right tackle job in 2019. Donovan will be the right guard, with Stefanski likely his sub after playing with the second team during the final scrimmage.

Defensive line

  • Starters: Mo Diallo, Jalen Harris, Trevon Mason, Leveel Tatum III
  • Backups: JB Brown, Nahe Sulunga, Shontrail Key, Eddie Siaumau-Sanitoa, Kyon Barrs, Dion Wilson Jr., Regen Terry

No set of starters will be harder to predict than the D-line, or at least half of it. Harris, finally in a defense that suits his skill set, is locked in as the weak-side end, while Mason will be to his left at one of the two interior positions (and will be the first option when Arizona goes with a 3-man front.

The other side, though, is a lot murkier due to a litany of injuries during training camp. Barrs would likely be locked into the other tackle spot but he’s missed almost every practice, and while Fisch is confident he’ll be healthy enough for the opener he isn’t likely to be game ready.

That moves Tatum, a graduate transfer from Fresno State, into the mix. He saw a lot of time with the first team during the tail end of camp and held his own.

Brown, who was set to be the strong-side end, may end up getting moved inside due to a combination of the emergence of Diallo—who joined the team with a week left in camp and was almost instantly up to speed—and the fact he’s looking a little heavier after missing time following the birth of his child. If he can transform that Dad Bod a little he’ll add versatility to the line.

Thankfully, Arizona has a lot of options here, as can be seen by the number of backups listed.

Linebacker

  • Starters: Issaiah Johnson, Anthony Pandy, Jerry Roberts
  • Backups: Rashie Hodge Jr., Treshaun Hayward, Kenny Hebert, Jason Harris, Kolbe Cage

Options abound at LB, as well, a far cry from last year when two walk-ons started the season opener. The transfer portal was very good to Arizona at this position, and at least one of those pickups will start, most likely Roberts, alongside holdovers Pandy and Johnson. Hebert might have been in there for Johnson but he’s missed time in camp and has had a history of not being able to stay healthy.

The secret weapon in this group could be Hodge, a New Mexico State transfer who is part of Arizona’s nickel package and always seemed to be around the ball. Cage could also make an impact as a true freshman after having some great individual camp days.

Viper

  • Starter: Christian Young
  • Backups: Rourke Freeburg, John Burton, Ammon Allen

This position is perfect for Young, who has started at both corner and safety and has grown to the size of a small linebacker. His combination of coverage skills, open-field instincts and speed off the edge will make his arguably the most valuable player on the defense.

Freeburg, a former starter at linebacker, will also be on the field a lot as Don Brown uses multiple packages, with Allen and Burton potentially spelling him and/or Young.

Cornerback

  • Starters: Christian Roland-Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford
  • Backups: Treydan Stukes, Malik Hausman, McKenzie Barnes

The recently put-on-scholarship Stukes is good enough to start, but Roland-Wallace and Rutherford are too solid not to have those jobs. Stukes and Hausman, who is the nickel corner, will see plenty of time with all the different packages, while Barnes can spell any spot.

Safety

  • Starters: Gunner Maldonado, Jaydin Young
  • Backups: Isaiah Mays, Rhedi Short, Jaxen Turner, Isaiah Taylor

Realistically, Arizona has four or five starting safeties in terms of their skills and abilities, so the first two (or three) on the field each game may be more dependent on the scheme and set than anything else. For now, though, Northwestern transfer Maldonado and newly scholarshipped Young are the first rung, with Mays, Short and Turner all bringing plenty of experience from a year ago.

Taylor is a late addition to the mix after showing out during the final scrimmage with an interception and a pass breakup. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor could also be a Viper thanks to his field vision.

Specialists

  • Starters: Lucas Havrisik (kicker), Tyler Loop (punter), Seth MacKellar (long snapper), Tayvian Cunningham (kick returner), BJ Casteel (punt returner)
  • Backups: Loop (kicker), Kyle Ostendorp (punter), Kameron Hawkins (long snapper), Stanley Berryhill (kick/punt returner)

There’s no reason to not go to Havrisik based on his leg strength, unless he gets really inaccurate, though Loop could trade off with him on kickoffs. Despite mentions during camp that Ostendorp was in the lead, expect Loop to be doing the punts based on his better overall leg.

Cunningham could be a game changer on kickoffs thanks to his speed, while both Casteel and Berryhill have the ability to break tackles and flip the field on punts.