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Arizona football notebook: T-Mac’s instincts standing out, Isaiah Taylor and DJ Warnell holding down safety spot in Jaxen Turner’s absence

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-tetairoa-mcmillan-dan-lanning-isaiah-taylor-dj-warnell-oregon Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

If you happen to see Tetairoa McMillan and Oregon coach Dan Lanning chatting either before or after Saturday night’s game, don’t take it the wrong way. They never really had a chance to meet in person before T-Mac flipped from the Ducks to Arizona last December.

“We was kind of bummed out when I called him saying I wasn’t going there,” McMillan said Tuesday. “He just said that he wished he had more time.”

Lanning was hired to coach Oregon on Dec. 11, four days before the 2021 Early Signing Period began. It ended on Dec. 17, which is when McMillan actually made up his mind to pick the UA despite being committed to the Ducks for four months.

“I wasn’t really sure where I was gonna go,” he said. “Obviously, the Oregon coaches left, so all the people that I had a relationship with left, so I was kind of in a bind in what I wanted to do. Friday was the last day, I didn’t sign the papers ... I called Coach Fisch at like 8:30 at night. And I was like, Mom, where should I go? And I was like, whatever, I’m just gonna go with my gut.

“Obviously I think I’ve made the right decision.”

A 4-star wide receiver and the highest-rated signee in program history, McMillan has so far lived up to the hype. He’s caught 16 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, going for 90 yards and a TD on five catches in the 43-20 win over Colorado. That earned him Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.

That game also saw him make another one-handed catch, something that’s become commonplace since his arrival. Hunter Echols said T-Mac’s first catch in spring practice was like that, something safety Isaiah Taylor confirmed Tuesday.

“When he first got here, I was pretty shocked,” Taylor said. “He was making kind of like those plays as a regular, so now when you see it happen in the game, it’s just basically like practice going right to the game. Everything he does in practice basically shows every day in the game. Going up on people, making one-handed catches.”

McMillan said a combination of instinct and practice have made those catches look easy.

“I mean, if I can’t reach the ball with two, might as well go up with one,” he said. “I definitely practice it in practice. In warmups, Coach (Darren Andrews) throws us the ball. After I had the catch vs. Colorado he came up to me and he was like, oh, we did that in practice. It’s instinct, but at the same time you also practice it.”

That same combo contributed to his first career pass attempt, which he completed to quarterback Jayden de Laura for 11 yards against Colorado. Running back Michael Wiley was the initial target, but de Laura’s persistence in practice to make him an option and McMillan’s field vision led to an audible.

“Mike Wiley was the first read, but from the looks of it during the play, it didn’t look like Mike Wiley had a step on (his defender) yet, so that’s why I scrambled out the pocket,” said McMillan, who played quarterback until switching to receiver in eighth grade. “But all week Jayden was telling me, like, throw me the ball right away, I’ll get you the yards, even though he was not originally supposed to be in the play. As I scrambled I saw Jayden call for the ball, but then the linebacker was opening his hips to turn to Jayden, so I took the ball just to act like I was running and and the linebacker stepped up. It was instinct, just trying to be a playmaker up there.”

Taylor takes charge

When safety Jaxen Turner injured his shoulder in the first half of the Cal game, his replacement was a redshirt freshman who had logged nine defensive snaps all season. Yet Isaiah Taylor ended up leading Arizona with nine tackles.

A week later, making his first career start, Taylor had five more tackles (and an 82.6 tackling grade, per Pro Football Focus, tops on the team) as well as a pass breakup.

“I’ve been preparing the whole season, but it just gave me an opportunity and I ran with it,” he said. “You get that quick adrenaline rush while you’re running in there. But after that first play you settle down and it’s just football. It’s something you’ve been doing since you were a little kid. Once that first play is over with, it’s just ball. You’re out there with your brothers just making plays. It’s fun.”

Taylor, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor was one of two prep players Arizona signed after Jedd Fisch was hired in December 2021. He and tight end Keyan Burnett became the seventh and eighth Fisch recruits (not including transfers) to start a game, seven this season.

Finally, a real defensive rotation

Arizona used 21 players on defense against Colorado, most since the season opener (23), and that was with one starter (Turner) and a key reserve (cornerback Isaiah Rutherford) not playing due to injury.

The Wildcats used 10 players on the defensive front, four at linebacker and seven in the secondary. That last group included UCLA transfer DJ Warnell, who had only been used on special teams the first four games but took one third of the snaps at free safety with Taylor getting the rest.

“They’re very productive, they were very active,” Nansen said of Taylor and Warnell. “I’m comfortable with those guys playing in the game.”

Nansen said he’s trying to find a role for Warnell, who in spring ball was used as a nickel corner.

“We’re trying to basically put him on the field,” Nansen said. “When we go to our base stuff he’s our backup Sam (linebacker). If we’re in our nickel, he’s our regular free safety. That’s what he’s been playing. He started off in the spring at nickel, so it’s good to know the overall scheme of things.”

Keyan’s contributions

Also seeing his most significant playing time this season was Burnett, another 4-star signee from the 2022 recruiting class. He took the spot vacated by Alex Lines, who left the program, as the blocking tight end and played 26 snaps.

“I’m really glad we got a chance to get him in, give him some more reps,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “He’s just gonna keep getting better just with the more reps he’s getting.”

Expected to be more involved in the passing game, Burnett has only been targeted once on 23 pass plays. The emergence of Tanner McLachlan as the go-to receiving tight end kept Burnett off the field until Lines departed, but for now his role is more as an extension of the offensive line.

“He really wants to do it, he’s a willing blocker,” Carroll said. “We know he can do special stuff when he gets the ball in his hands, so this is a great opportunity for him to step up.”