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A position-by-position look at Arizona football entering spring practice

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-practice-roster-position-breakdown-analysis-2022 Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Spring football begins Wednesday for the Arizona Wildcats, who are hoping to keep the momentum rolling after an offseason in which they landed one of the best recruiting classes in school history.

A good number of those newcomers are here for spring ball, with 22 new players among the 96 that are on the current roster. Coach Jedd Fisch said another 19 or so will be joining the team in the summer, including 11 scholarship freshmen.

Our unofficial tally has Arizona with 86 scholarship athletes, one above the limit of 85 for the season, along with 31 walk-ons. For the spring, including injured players or those unavailable for personal reasons, there are 75 scholarship players and 21 walk-ons on the roster.

Here’s a position-by-position look at Arizona heading into spring ball.

(x-expected to join team in summer)

Quarterbacks

Top returners: Jordan McCloud (RS-Jr.), Gunner Cruz (RS-Soph.), Will Plummer (Soph.)

Key newcomers: Jayden de Laura (Soph.), Noah Fifita (Fr.)

Notable departures: Luke Ashworth

A massive upgrade at quarterback was tops on Fisch’s wish list and he got that with the signing of 3-star prospect Fifita and the addition of Pac-12 Freshman of the Year de Laura from Washington State. Cruz and McCloud are expected to be full participants in spring ball after each having season-ending surgeries in October, while Plummer is the most “experienced” of the group with Arizona’s system after starting seven games in 2021.

Fisch seems intent on figuring out who his starter is going to be as soon as possible, not like last season when he went into the opener with Plummer and Cruz sharing the job and it all going downhill from there.

“‘I am into naming our guy,” he said. “I would like to find our guy and name him.”

Running backs

Top returners: Drake Anderson (RS-Jr.), Michael Wiley (Jr.), Stevie Rocker Jr. (Soph.), Jalen John (Fr.)

Key newcomers: Jonah Coleman (Fr.), x-Rayshon Luke (Fr.)

Notable departures: Clay Markoff, Bam Smith

Expect another running back-by-committee approach in 2022, much like last season when four different guys started and none had more than Wiley’s 91 carries. Coleman figures to also get into the mix with a good spring, while Luke—Arizona’s highest-rated running back signee since Mike Bell—should also get a shot with the offense, possibly as a slot receiver.

Arizona running backs caught 68 passes in 2021, so expect that trend to continue with all of these options.

Wide receivers

Top returners: Jamarye Joiner (RS-Jr.), Jalen Johnson (Jr.), Dorian Singer (Soph.), Anthony Simpson (Soph.), Ma’jon Wright (R-Fr.)

Key newcomers: Jacob Cowing (Jr.), Tetairoa McMillan (Fr.), AJ Jones (Fr.), Kevin Green Jr. (Fr.)

Notable departures: Stanley Berryhill III, Tayvian Cunningham, BJ Casteel, Boobie Curry

If not for linebacker, wide receiver would be by far the most overhauled position on the roster. Gone are a quartet of veterans who combined to catch 155 passes for 1,607 yards and seven touchdowns. But UTEP transfer Cowing had 1,367 yards and seven TDs on 69 receptions all himself a year ago, while the freshmen—highlighted by McMillan, the highest-rated signee in program history—all come in with major pedigrees.

The returning group is pretty good, too, even when you remove Joiner from the mix with him out following another foot surgery. Singer broke out late last season, prompting the team to put him on scholarship, while Wright showed flashes of greatness when he played for the UA in 2020 before leaving (twice) and having to sit out last season as a double transfer.

Tight ends

Top returners: Alex Lines (Soph.)

Key newcomers: Tanner McLachlan (RS-Soph.), Keyan Burnett (Fr.), x-Tyler Powell (Fr.)

Notable departures: Bryce Wolma, Stacey Marshall Jr., Zach Williams

Tight ends coach Jordan Paopao shared special teams duties with Keith Dudzinski last season but is now doing all of that in addition to his position-coach work. He already has a known commodity in Lines, while Burnett comes to Tucson with high expectations after posting receiver-like numbers at Anaheim’s Servite High School alongside Fifita and McMillan.

If you can find a sportsbook that will give you odds on Arizona’s tight ends exceeding last year’s tally of 16 receptions, go ahead and consider wagering an unhealthy amount on the over.

Offensive line

Top returners: Josh Donovan (RS-Sr.), Paiton Fears (RS-Sr.), Jordan Morgan (Jr.), Davis DiVall (RS-Soph.), Josh Baker (Soph.), JT Hand (RS-Fr.), Woody Jean (RS-Fr.), Leif Magnuson (RS-Fr.), Shontrail Key (RS-Fr.)

Key newcomers: Joe Borjon (Soph.), Jack Buford (Soph.), Jonah Savaiinaea (Fr.), Grayson Stovall (Fr.), x-Jacob Reece (Fr.)

Notable departures: Donovan Laie, Josh McCauley

The Wildcats return several starters from last year’s line, which is both good and bad when you consider how that unit fared last year (and in 2020). What’s more promising is the amount of depth Arizona has in the trenches, with Donovan, Fears, Morgan, Baker and Hand combined to start 38 games while several other returners saw key snaps.

Among the additions, Savaiinaea has the best chance to contribute right away considering how well he moves at 6-foot-4 and 337 pounds, while Buford is an intriguing piece who comes to Tucson as a walk-on after being a 4-star prospect who started out at Missouri and then went to New Mexico.

Also worth watching is the play of Key, who moves from defensive line after not seeing the field in 2021.

Defensive line

Top returners: Jalen Harris (RS-Sr.), JB Brown (Sr.), Kyon Barrs (Jr.), Paris Shand (Soph.), Dion Wilson Jr. (Soph.)

Key newcomers: Hunter Echols (RS-Sr.), Tiaoalli Savea (Soph.), Jason Harris (RS-Fr.), x-Russell Davis II (Fr.), x-Isaiah Johnson (Fr.), x-Tai’ta’i Uiagalelei (Fr.), x-Isaiah Ward (Fr.), Jermaine Wiggins Jr. (Fr.)

Notable departures: Mo Diallo, Trevon Mason, Leevel Tatum III, Regen Terry

Not having Barrs for the spring is unfortunate, but it also gives Arizona an opportunity to give its wealth of newcomers a chance to show what they can do. Echols and Savea, transfers from USC and UCLA, respectively, both should be in the mix as will some of the freshmen when most arrive in June.

Then there’s the Harris brothers, who could finally play together once again. Jalen Harris is the most experienced guy on the roster, having played 45 games including 28 starts during his career, while Jason Harris has spent two seasons in college—one at Colorado, one at Arizona—getting his body right and now figures to be able to contribute on the edge at 6-foot-7 and 252 pounds.

Linebackers

Top returners: Jerry Roberts (RS-Sr.), Issaiah Johnson (RS-Jr.), Malik Reed (Soph.), Kolbe Cage (RS-Fr.), James Bohls (RS-Fr.), Jabar Triplett (RS-Fr.)

Key newcomers: Anthony Solomon (Jr.), x-Sterling Lane (Fr.), x-Jacob Manu (Fr.), x-Tyler Martin (Fr.)

Notable departures: Anthony Pandy, Kenny Hebert, Treyshaun Hayward, Rashie Hodge Jr., Rourke Freeburg

Arizona plans to go with a 4-2-5 defensive alignment under new coordinator Johnny Nansen, and sometimes 4-1-6, which makes the loss of so many contributors at linebacker much easier to deal with. Roberts was the only returner who saw significant action last season, and he’s coming back from a broken leg, while Reed got his first start in the Territorial Cup but is expected to make a big leap this fall.

He and Solomon, a transfer from Michigan, are penciled in as the first-team linebackers while the overall depth chart at the position won’t be finalized until the three freshmen arrive in the summer. Their absence in spring could allow Bohls, who is being converted from running back, to show if he’s capable of the new position.

Cornerbacks

Top returners: Isaiah Mays (RS-Jr.), Christian Roland-Wallace (Jr.), Isaiah Rutherford (Jr.), Treydan Stukes (Soph.)

Key newcomers: Ephesians Prysock (Fr.), Jai-Ayviauynn Celestine (Fr.), x-Tacario Davis (Fr.)

Notable departures: None

Arizona is pretty set at corner, and has options. Roland-Wallace has started 23 straight games, while Rutherford and Stukes split the starts at the other spot in 2021. Celestine and Mays are the top nickel corners, while Prysock also figures to be fighting for playing time.

With the Wildcats intending to have five or six defensive backs on the field most of the time, expect a lot of mixing and matching.

Safeties

Top returners: Christian Young (Sr.), Jaxen Turner (Jr.), Gunner Maldonado (Soph.), Jaydin Young (Soph.), Isaiah Taylor (RS-Fr.), Dalton Johnson (RS-Fr.)

Key newcomers: DJ Warnell (Soph.)

Notable departures: Malik Hausman, Rhedi Short

Every said about cornerback can be echoed for safety, where all the starters are back and the position room is bolstered by Christian Young moving back in after being the Viper in Don Brown’s defense. Warnell, the UCLA transfer, has good size and good handle both safety and nickel corner duties.

Specialists

Top returners: Kyle Ostendorp (Jr.), Seth MacKellar (Jr.), Tyler Loop (Soph.)

Key newcomers: None

Notable departures: Lucas Havrisik

Loop was Arizona’s “short-distance” kicker for most of last season but handled all the extra points, so really the only thing he is adding are kickoffs. Ostendorp was an unsung hero a year ago and figures to only get better.

As for returner options, Fisch listed receivers Cowing and Singer and corners Celestine and Roland-Wallace as the guys most likely to get to field punts and kickoffs.