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What to watch for when Arizona football opens 2022 season at San Diego State

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Jedd Fisch has called this season “Year One” of Arizona’s rebuild, a convenient way of glossing over the 1-11 campaign in his first go-around as head coach. But considering how different the Wildcats’ roster is, that bit of revisionist history is understandable.

At least until the games begin.

Arizona opens the 2022 season on Saturday afternoon at San Diego State, a nationally televised game on CBS in a semi-new Snapdragon Stadium against an opponent who bulldozed the Wildcats 38-14 in Tucson a year ago. All of the ingredients are there for the UA to have a breakout/revenge performance, while at the same time all the components of a letdown are also present.

“We have to see what it’s all going to look like, but I do believe that if we do what I think we can do, we’ll be able to start this build the way we want it to,” Fisch said Monday.

Added offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll on Tuesday: “I’m excited for these guys to go show what they’ve been working on. It’s their first test.”

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats, who according to DraftKings Sportsbook are 6-point underdogs, take on the Aztecs in San Diego:

Please consult your roster

It’s a good thing the names are on the backs of the jerseys, because there are going to be a lot of new players in action. Arizona has 50 newcomers on the roster, 29 of which are on the season-opening depth chart.

That includes as many as five new starters on offense, most notably quarterback Jayden de Laura and wide receivers Tetairoa McMillan and Jacob Cowing, and another eight or so first-year Wildcats are likely to start or play on defense.

All that change wasn’t just for show, either. 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite rankings are out, and Arizona ranks 48th out of 231 FBS and FCS programs. That’s ninth-best in the Pac-12 (one spot behind Cal and eight behind ASU) and up 20 spots from 2021.

For the record, San Diego State is ranked 115th and Arizona’s other nonconference opponents, Mississippi State and North Dakota State, are 29th and 207th, respectively.

Spreading the ball around

Last season the Wildcats had no running back carry it more than 90 times, while more than 30 percent of the team’s receptions were by one player (Stanley Berryhill). Both situations were by necessity, not by choice.

This year, though, the likelihood that Arizona will go both running back and receiver by committee would be by choice, at least early on, since there are so many good options.

“It’s tough to really say right now, week one, that we’re going to asterisk certain plays for certain guys, because we really have to start getting a feel for who they are,” Fisch said Thursday. “I would say moving forward, at some point in time, you would say ‘hey, let’s make sure we get X amount of touches for a certain guy.’ Right now. I think we’re really just trying to figure out who our team is, and really that process of getting to know our own personnel while we’re building this thing.”

Michael Wiley should start in the backfield, but he’s unlikely to be on the field for more than half the offensive snaps. Freshmen Jonah Coleman and Rayshon Luke will also get a fair number of touches, while Florida State transfer DJ Williams figures to be the top short-yardage and red zone option and both Drake Anderson (who led the UA in rushing last season, with 384 yards) and Stevie Rocker Jr. figure to get their chances on third down.

At receiver, McMillan and Cowing will get the most targets, but just the presence of two No. 1-type options makes the chance that anyone will come close to Berryhill’s 83 receptions (or 118 targets) very slim.

Throw in Dorian Singer and Anthony Simpson, the top two returning receivers from 2021, as well as three viable tight end choices in Alex Lines, Keyan Burnett and Tanner McLachlan, and then add in that almost every running back will get targets and the love is going to get spread around.

The defensive scheme and rotation

Arizona’s defense has few fewer new faces in the mix, but that’s countered by a change in scheme and play caller. Johnny Nansen’s 4-2-5 alignment isn’t drastically different from the 3-3-5 that Don Brown used last season but it will put more emphasis on coverage for the middle-tier defenders while still keeping an eye on the run game and, at in the case of San Diego State, a mobile quarterback.

“We got to stop the run, contain the quarterback,” Nansen said. “Those are the two things that we’ve been preaching to our guys. Everybody’s got assignments. Especially when you’re dealing with a running quarterback. We always got to have an extra body in there, assign somebody for the quarterback.”

Two potential starters who dealt with injuries in camp are expected to play, but at least one won’t start. Fisch said sophomore cornerback Trey Stukes is “good to go” after missing time due to a leg injury yet junior Isaiah Rutherford will make his eighth start with Arizona.

Sophomore (and UCLA transfer) Tia Savea is listed as the co-starter at defensive tackle with sophomore Paris Shand, but Nansen said Tuesday that he’s hoping for 20-25 snaps from Savea which would make it likely that Shand will get his fourth career start.

Though only two are part of the base defense, linebacker may be the most important position for Arizona due to the uncertainty around its projected starters. Senior Jerry Roberts hasn’t played in a game since breaking his leg on the first play at Washington State last November, while redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage (the first player to commit to Kevin Sumlin in his final recruiting class in 2020) has only played in one college game.

San Diego State’s stuff

In last year’s matchup, SDSU took a 21-0 lead midway through the first quarter and ended up outgaining Arizona 454-230. The Aztecs forced three turnovers and scored on a blocked punt, dominating all aspects of the game.

Their defense should be just as good, returning seven starters from a unit that ranked 12th nationally in yards allowed per game and third in run defense.

“I don’t know why they would change too much,” Fisch said. “Now this is game one, so maybe there’s something different that we don’t know of or we’re not aware of at this point in time. They’re a very, very good defensive football team. They’ve been that way for a long time. They’re very, very good on defense and I would expect it to be very similar.”

It’s SDSU’s offense that figures to be much different. Only three starters are back, two on an offensive line that will have three guys making their first career start, and there will be new starters at quarterback, running back and tight end.

The QB, though, doesn’t lack in experience. Sixth-year senior Braxton Burmeister, a two-time UA commit in the 2016 class, has started 21 games between stints at Oregon and Virginia Tech.

“He’s fast, he can throw; he’s played a lot of games,” Fisch said of Burmeister, who has 3,020 career passing yards and more than 500 career rushing yards with seven touchdowns.

Nansen said Will Plummer has played the role of Burmeister in practice.

The red zone situation

A very significant amount of Arizona’s training camp, including almost every team period in the first week or so, was devoted to improving efficiency in the red zone. Offensively and defensively, the Wildcats were dead last in this category in 2021.

The UA was historically bad scoring TDs when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, finding the end zone just 12 of 39 times. The first of those red-zone TDs came against SDSU, on Arizona’s 14th drive of the game (25th of the season) and five trip in two games into scoring territory.

SDSU ranked 35th last season in red zone scoring and 97th in red zone defense.

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