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Top position battles to watch as Arizona football begins training camp

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-position-battles-quarterback-running-back-linebacker-safety-2021 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona begins its preseason training camp on Friday, the first chance the new coaching staff will have to work with its entire 118-person roster.

The Wildcats had about 90 players on hand for spring ball, but not all were able to participate. Coach Jedd Fisch said Wednesday that he expects almost all to be able to participate from the outset, though we know wide receiver Jamarye Joiner won’t be one of those as he recovers from a second foot surgery in May.

When Joiner returns he figures to be one of Arizona’s starting wide receivers, and Fisch said “we have a pretty good idea” who the UA will start at the three wideout positions in the Sept. 4 opener against BYU in Las Vegas.

The same can’t be said for several other positions. Here are the ones that figure to have the biggest competition during training camp:

Quarterback

Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer have been battling it out since spring ball, with neither showing much separation. Now enters Jordan McCloud, the South Florida transfer who arrived in the summer and will be given every opportunity to win the starting job but he will have to get up to speed quickly.

“We’re definitely going to give him an opportunity to see what he can do,” quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty said. “At the same time it’s not spring ball, you’re up against a time clock, you’re up against trying to get the team ready for that first game. The goal of camp isn’t just to be named the starter, the goal of camp is to become the best quarterback you can be. Each and every guy is on that same journey throughout camp.”

Fisch said the first five practices will see all three QBs get one-third of the reps. After that it will be dependent on how they’ve fared, with the possibility of dropping one from the competition.

As for when a starter will be named, and if it will be made public prior to the team taking the field at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas?

“When we know who our starter is, you’ll know who our starter is,” Fisch said. “I’m not really into the gamesmanship to be quite honest. I think the more gamesmanship you have, the more your team thinks that you’re playing games with them and I’m much more into open honest communication. When we know who our starter, is they’ll know who our starter is, and then you guys will know. We’ll just do it in that order.”

Added Dougherty: “You want it to declare itself as soon as you can but you also don’t want to rush to make a decision too early.”

McCloud is the most experienced of the trio, having started 17 games at USF, while Plummer made one start for the UA last season and Cruz saw mop-up duty in one game at Washington State in 2020.

Running back

Gone is Gary Brightwell, who got more than 70 percent of the carries last season. In his place are several potential options, and Arizona’s offense will call for one getting the bulk of the touches in games.

“If he’s hot, I’m going to run him until his tongue is hanging out,” running backs coach Scottie Graham said. “If you have a workhorse that can carry the ball 30 times we’ll give it to you 30 times.”

Michael Wiley figures to be the favorite, having backed up Brightwell in 2020 and JJ Taylor the year before. He had 31 carries apiece each season, averaging 7.2 yards per carry with three touchdowns in five games last fall, but he missed some time during spring ball with minor injuries.

That opened the door for true freshman Stevie Rocker Jr., a Tucson product who stood out during the spring as the only running back not to miss a practice. Also impressive during the spring was Northwestern transfer Drake Anderson, who led the Wildcats in rushing in 2019 and has more than 200 career carries under his belt.

Another RB to watch is Bam Smith, who opted out of the 2020 season but ran for 301 yards in 13 games from 2018-19.

Edge rusher

Don Brown’s defense will have a 4-man front, which has moved Jalen Harris back to having his hand in the ground after working at outside linebacker in 2020. Brown joked in the spring that he would regularly poke fun at Harris for not having any sacks the year before—Arizona only had two in five games—but in this more aggressive scheme he should have a shot to top his career high of four in 2019.

Harris isn’t guaranteed to be a starter, though he probably has the best chance from the group to be one of the guys on the edge for the opener. To a lesser extent so does JB Brown, though he hasn’t played in a game since 2019 after opting out last season.

Paris Shand, Regen Terry, Eddie Siumau-Sanitoa and several others are also in the mix, so it will be fun to see how defensive line coach Ricky Hunley rotates in options during practice.

Linebacker

There is Anthony Pandy and then there’s everyone else.

Brown called Pandy, who has 13 career starts and played in 37 games, a “solid” guy who figures to be the starter at the Will linebacker spot. After that it’s a matter of figuring out which two of the Wildcats’ four transfer additions will start at Mike and Sam.

The most experienced of the lot is Treshaun Hayward, who was the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, but he’s just now showing up after being in limbo during the summer. Hayward signed with Arizona in February but was reportedly dropped from the program in May before reuniting with the team just recently.

“Tre’s a great kid, obviously had some things personally, had some things academically that he had to clean up, so we’re glad he’s with us,” Brown said.

Jerry Roberts played a bunch at Bowling Green, while Kenny Hebert made seven starts at Vanderbilt. Malik Reed did not play in his one season at Wisconsin but figures to be a key contributor instantly with the Wildcats.

“I don’t see it as uncertainty,” Don Brown said when asked about all the new faces. “Pandy is a solid guy. [Christian Young] is a solid guy that we’ve entrenched at the Viper position, so we’re really developing depth, and we’re trying to find who’s going to be the starter at Mike and we got three guys that can potentially help us.”

There’s also holdover Issaiah Johnson, who made some good strides in 2020, along with several incoming freshmen to consider.

Safety

This position was so thin in 2020 that Rhedi Short, who hadn’t played in his first three seasons at Arizona, started all five games last year. The numbers are a lot better entering camp, which means there should be a stiff competition for playing time.

Jaxen Turner and Isaiah Mays both looked good a year ago and have a leg up on much of the competition, though Northwestern transfer Gunner Maldonado is right there with those incumbents. Several freshmen will get their shot, with newcomer Isaiah Taylor also getting a look at the Viper position—a linebacker/safety hybrid—that figures to be Christian Young’s to lose.