How Tanner McLachlan ended up going from a rehabbing walk-on Canadian to Arizona’s most reliable pass-catching tight end in less than a year is an amazing story unto itself. Throw in the origin story of his Wildcat fandom and the tale becomes even more astonishing.
McLachlan, who was put on scholarship the night before the season opener at San Diego State, actually grew up an Arizona fan despite living in Lethbridge, Alberta. But it wasn’t until a trip to a UA-Washington State game with his high school team in 2014 that the connection really strengthened.
“Eight years ago, Arizona against Washington State, in Pullman, and I was a sophomore in high school,” McLachlan said. “And I remember being on the sidelines and I was a huge Arizona fan, seeing Arizona run out, and I knew that one day I wanted to play for Arizona. I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I didn’t know when it was gonna happen, but I knew I wanted to be here. And it’s funny how life works out, because obviously it happened and I’m pretty, pretty excited about that.”
The Wildcats won that game, 59-37, jumping out to a 31-0 lead, and would go on to win the Pac-12 South title that season.
“I know they won, because I was the only one wearing an Arizona shirt, so I know there were some people, fans that weren’t too happy about it,” said McLachlan, who developed his interest in the UA via annual family vacations to Arizona in the winter.
He began his college career in 2018 at Southern Utah, though, an FCS school in Cedar City that Arizona beat 62-31 that season (but McLachlan didn’t play). His breakout year was in 2021, when during the spring—most FCS schools skipped the 2020 season because of COVID—he had 12 catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns in four games.
But it was that fourth one, against Idaho, where he planted wrong on a route and ended up tearing his ACL. Surgery came a month later, and just as rehab started the Southern Utah coaching staff was let go.
“I was at a point in my career where I knew I needed a change,” McLachlan said. “I was kind of in between programs and decided to kind of bet on myself and that’s when I decided to walk on here around Christmas time. And it’s the best decision I’ve made so far.”
Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said McLachlan was a “Coach (Jordan) Paopao find,” and it turns out the person who connected the two was ex-Wildcat Paul Magloire.
“When Tanner became available we were (asked) would you be willing to bring on a walk-on tight end that’s coming off of an ACL surgery that didn’t play for a year but has good film, and is a really good kid,” Fisch said. “And that’s kind of what was the initial conversation when it got brought to me. And then as he showed up, it was a lot more than that.”
McLachlan committed to Arizona right after Christmas, and once he arrived he said the training staff “ramped” up his rehab. Before that he was doing it on his own, with the help of YouTube videos.
“After I had surgery I had some really good help from some people at Southern Utah,” he said. “But then when I was in between schools, a lot of it was YouTube, a lot of it was kind of talking to other people that have gone through the same process, and just kind of figuring it out on my own. I would just do random (videos), I would look through like where I should be at week by week, month by month. Kind of just play by it by ear and do what I was supposed to do.”
Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said he knew Arizona had something special in McLachlan as soon as spring practices began.
“We saw some flashes in the spring. he couldn’t do much physically because he was ... working his rehab, but we had an idea pretty early on that the kid has some special talents and some traits,” Carroll said. “And he’s got a great mind for the sport, too, so it comes pretty naturally to him. He’s a good athlete, and he wants to learn. Great teammate. Just a kid that the guys love to play for and play with. It’s not really shocking.”
McLachlan getting put on scholarship ahead of the SDSU game, in which he had one catch for 10 yards, drew huge applause from the team. It also caught cornerback Treydan Stukes, himself a former walk-on, by surprise.
“I didn’t even know he was a walk-on, I thought he was like a regular player,” Stuke said. “He completely deserves it, he earned it. I was so happy for him when they announced that, because I just remember how I felt when when I got my scholarship from being a walk-on. He worked his backside off.”
McLachlan has caught four passes each of the past two games, the first UA tight end to do that since Bryce Wolma had three straight 4-catch games in 2018. His nine receptions are one shy of the 10 Alex Lines had all of last season, and he’s on pace for the most by a Wildcat tight end since Rob Gronkowski had 47 in 2008.