Arizona brings back a lot of experience on the offensive line for the 2022 season. But that experience came in 2020 and 2021, when the Wildcats are very bad in the trenches.
Five UA linemen who are expected to be part of the main rotation this fall have combined for 38 starts, most of those on units that over the previous two seasons allowed 53 sacks and 123 tackles for loss in 17 games. Both figures are the most in the Pac-12 during that span.
In between those linemen had to learn a new offense, with new blocking schemes, and the growing pains showed last fall.
“It was a new system, we were still trying to get the hang of it,” redshirt senior offensive tackle Paiton Fears said. “We’ve improved already. We have way better chemistry with each other.”
Fears has started 18 straight games at right tackle, playing all 915 offensive snaps in 2021. He said he wasn’t aware he hadn’t missed a play until after the season.
“I was just trying to be a good teammate,” Fears said. “No matter what happened, I’m just trying to be in there for every game I could, every snap. That was really what was on my mind. In the trenches it gets rough, you’re going to get nicked up, you know you’re going to get banged. It’s just the mentality you gotta have to be tough. And also, just taking care of your body. I spent a lot of time in the training room, getting treatment as much as you can.”
Left tackle Jordan Morgan echoed that mindset, revealing he played all of last season with the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain he suffered during training camp. The junior only missed the opener against BYU, logging more than 700 snaps despite hyperextending his left arm in the streak-ending win over Cal.
“Playing on the line you get hurt all the time,” Morgan said. “I never wanted to take things off, days off. I didn’t want to fall behind. We (as a team) already fell behind.”
Also back is left guard Josh Donovan, a redshirt senior who started seven games in 2021, as well as younger linemen Josh Baker and JT Hand. Baker started seven games at guard and was penciled in to be the successor to Josh McCauley at center, but a pectoral injury has kept him out of spring practice, leaving Hand—who played the last four games of 2021 and started at Washington State—to handle center duties this spring.
“JT has done an admirable job of getting us through the spring,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said. “He had to jump in and take reps with the ones and kind of be a leader as an 18-year-old.”
Baker, whom Carroll called “Coach Baker” since he’s been working with the other linemen despite being injured, is expected back for preseason camp.
Arizona added five offensive linemen in the offseason, the most notable being 6-foot-4, 337-pound Jonah Savaiinaea, who has taken almost all the first-team snaps at right guard and is in line to start the 2022 opener at San Diego State in September.
Hand didn’t make his first start until mid-November last season, while Morgan’s first career start came as a true freshman in the 10th game of 2019.
“Jonah’s naturally big already,” Morgan said. “When I came in I was 275, Jonah came in at 340 already.”