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Arizona football notebook: Wendell Moe’s rise, the offensive run production and contending with UCLA’s rush attack

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Of the 23 players Arizona signed for 2022, its best recruiting class in recent memory, nearly all of them were locked in back in December. The notable exception was offensive lineman Wendell Moe, who didn’t commit to the Wildcats until the end of April.

That’s because Moe, a 3-star prospect from Long Beach, Calif., was set to play at FCS Morgan State in Baltimore until that program had a coaching change. Tyrone Wheatley, a former star running back at Michigan and in the NFL, left in February to be the Denver Broncos’ running backs coach under new head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Wheatley’s departure enabled Moe to get released from his letter of intent, and Arizona quickly swooped in to grab him.

“We’d seen this film but he’d already signed, so we kind of knew he was a guy we’d like to have in our program,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said. “And it worked out that he was available.”

Moe made his collegiate debut in last week’s loss at Utah, starting at left guard and playing 27 of 57 snaps in a rotation with previous starter Josh Donovan.

Carroll said the decision to start Moe, rather than have him work his way up to that role was a “rip the band-aid” situation, one warranted by Moe’s improvement in practice and the need to see how well he could hold up in game action.

“We wanted to see how long his stamina is, because he hasn’t played in a true game,” Carroll said, noting that fellow freshman Jonah Savaiinaea hit a wall when he started at right guard in the opener at San Diego State. “We started Jonah in the first game way back when and he made it to about halftime.”

The 6-foot-2 Moe is listed online at 360 pounds, but UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday he’d lost 38 pounds since arriving—“a little bit out of shape,” per Carroll—in June.

“He was always a really good mover on film,” Carroll said. “Had to trim some of those pounds off of him.”

Moe was Arizona’s third highest-graded offensive player against Utah, behind left tackle Jordan Morgan and backup quarterback Noah Fifita, and his 74.9 run-blocking grade was second to Morgan’s 76.7.

Run the dang ball?

The combo of Moe and Savaiinaea at the guard spots, as well as sophomore Josh Baker at center, can serve as a foundation for Arizona’s line in 2023 and beyond since right tackle Paiton Fears is a redshirt senior and Morgan could leave early for the NFL Draft.

Could it also provide the impetus for the Wildcats to commit more to the run down the stretch?

Arizona averaged 9.5 yards per carry, not including sacks, against Utah. Even taking out the 31 yards Jayden de Laura gained on scrambles the average was 9.3 (140 yards on 15 designed runs).

For the season the UA is averaging 5.98 yards per designed run. That’s still way behind Pac-12 rushing leader UCLA, which averages 7.01 yards on designed runs, and USC (6.85), but better than Oregon (5.86), Utah (5.37) and most other teams in the conference.

But Arizona averages only 23.4 designed runs per game, and none of its ballcarriers are doing so more than 10 times per contest. The Wildcats’ 39 carries in the opener remain a season high, though the last two games they’ve netted more than six yards a rush even with sacks included.

UCLA allows only 3.98 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play, but take out sacks and the Bruins give up 4.86 per carry. The Wildcats could look to try and establish the run early, particularly by taking advantage of the bulk that Moe and Savaiinaea provide.

“They both play with a low center of gravity and can anchor pretty well, and they’re both good movers,” Carroll said. “They’re not just guys who are stuck in the ground. Really like the way they can work on the second level, work to cut off the backside.”

The 411 on DTR

Speaking of UCLA’s run game, the Bruins are coming off a 50-36 win at ASU in which it gained 392 yards (9.33 per carry) despite top rusher Zach Charbonnet sitting out with an undisclosed injury. That’s far from ideal for an Arizona defense that allowed 306 yards on the ground at Utah, the third time a Pac-12 opponent has topped the 300-yard mark this season.

One of those was Oregon, when quarterback Bo Nix ran for 70 yards and three touchdowns. No one else really ran their quarterbacks much against the Wildcats, though Utah got 23 yards and two TDs the three times third-string Nate Johnson came in for Cameron Rising as the UA seemed mystified at how to stop him on the edge.

Enter Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA’s fifth-year senior QB who has run for 493 yards (not including sacks) and seven TDs. He had 110 yards and two TDs against ASU, with a nice 69 coming on scrambles, and for the season he’s gained 334 yards on 30 scrambles.

“We’ve got to keep him in the pocket, make sure we don’t run past the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “Make sure we level rush the quarterback. Once he gets out of the pocket he’s dangerous, so that’s gonna be the the message of the guys all week.”