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Analyzing Arizona football’s season-opening depth chart

arizona-wildcats-football-depth-chart-offense-defense-starters-newcomers-sdsu-2022-jedd-fisch Arizona Athletics

Arizona dropped its first official depth chart of the 2022 season on Monday afternoon, giving us a good idea of which players are going to start the opener at San Diego State and who else is expected to contribute.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of names on here that weren’t around a year ago, the result of Arizona completely overhauling its roster between the first and second seasons of Jedd Fisch’s tenure. Of the 72 players listed, 29 joined the program since January including eight potential starters.

“We’ve got 70 players that have never played together,” Fisch said Monday. “We have (50) players that weren’t our team (in 2021).”

Below are some things that stand out from the first depth chart:

An (almost) all-new offense

Depending on which player gets the nod at tight end, Arizona could have five new starters on offense: Jayden de Laura at quarterback, Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan at receiver and Jonah Savaiinaea at right guard have been locks to start since the spring, while freshman Keyan Burnett and Southern Utah transfer Tanner McLachlan are battling Alex Lines for the tight end gig.

And if the Wildcats opt to start out with two tight ends, as they did four times in 2021, or two running backs, which happened five times, then even more newcomers could be on the field first since freshman Jonah Coleman and Florida State transfer DJ Williams are right behind Michael Wiley on the RB depth chart.

Arizona’s defense is a lot more similar to last season, in starters if not scheme. It’s only up front, where USC transfer Hunter Echols is listed as the starter at the “Kat” edge position and UCLA transfer Tia Savea is considered the co-starter at defensive tackle alongside sophomore Paris Shand, that you’ll find newcomers on the top line.

Speaking of the defense

The Kat position isn’t the only difference between Johnny Nansen’s system and what Don Brown ran. Arizona’s base defense is a 4-2-5, with that traditional third linebacker replaced by a hybrid cornerback/safety “Star” position.

As expected, sophomore Gunner Maldonado gets the Star spot, with sophomore Jaydin Young and redshirt freshman Jeffrey Robinson behind him. Robinson is one of three walk-ons on the defensive depth chart, same as on the offense.

Nansen plans to rotate a lot of guys in on defense, mostly by choice, but the uncertain status of corner Treydan Stukes as he comes back from a leg injury suffered in camp may press true freshmen Ephesians Prysock and Tacario Davis into action right away.

Loyalty is paying off

As notable as it is to have so many true freshmen in the mix for Arizona, it’s also worth noting that some of the youngest guys that Fisch and his staff inherited—and who have stuck around—are in line to be big contributors this season.

Only eight of the 16 players from the 2021 recruiting class who signed with the UA between Kevin Sumlin’s firing and Fisch’s hiring are still around, and four of them are on the defensive depth chart. That includes redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage, the first player to commit to Arizona in the 2021 class, who is listed as the starter at Will linebacker.

Elsewhere, Dalton Johnson is Christian Young’s backup at boundary safety, while Evan Branch-Haynes and Kevon Garcia are third at their respective positions on the defensive line.

Not many names on the offensive line

Almost every offensive and defensive position lists at least three players, with all five scholarship quarterbacks and six of the seven scholarship running backs (where are you, Jalen John?) on the depth chart.

And then there’s the O-line, where only one backup is listed for each of the five spots despite Arizona having 15 offensive linemen on the roster. And one backup, redshirt junior Sam Langi, is listed as the backup at both left guard and left tackle.

Backup center JT Hand can also play guard, while starting left guard Josh Donovan can fill in at either tackle position if needed, so the situation isn’t as dire as it sounds. It just means that, at least at this point, 40 percent of the Wildcats’ offensive linemen aren’t considered ready to contribute except on special teams.

Mystery returners

Speaking of special teams, the only surprise in that area was the lack of kickoff and punt returners. Coordinator Jordan Paopao mentioned a bevy of options for those gigs during camp, most of whom are starters on offense or defense, but either Arizona doesn’t know just which ones it wants to use yet or it’s keeping that part a secret.

Or maybe it plans to fair catch all punts and take a knee on all kickoffs, getting the ball at the 25. The latter might not be a bad philosophy, since Arizona averaged less than 19 yards on kick returns last season and only four times returned one more than 25 yards.