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Arizona football: End-of-season position grades

arizona-wildcats-football-position-grades-season-analysis-2023-pac12-offense-defense-special-teams Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona’s season isn’t completely over, as there is still a to-be-named bowl game to play in. But in the current era of college football, teams don’t often look exactly the same in bowls as they do in the regular season.

Injuries, coaching changes, player opt-outs and the NCAA transfer portal all can change the makeup of a team between the end of November and whenever that bowl game occurs. It remains to be seen if any of these affect the Wildcats, but with that in mind we decided to do our season grades for the various position groups after the 12 regularly scheduled grades.

And the UA has a pretty good report card to put up on the fridge following a 9-3 season, its most wins in nine years, and a 7-2 record in Pac-12 play that ties for the most conference victories in school history.

Here’s how we grade each group, with some context as well as their midseason grades given during the bye week in October.

Quarterbacks: A

Midseason grade: B+

When Arizona was on its bye it had just finished a run of three straight games against ranked opponents, two on the road, and ended up winning the third in dominant fashion at Washington State. Those three games were all piloted by Noah Fifita, who took over for an injured Jayden de Laura and managed to look better each game.

That didn’t change after the bye, and Jedd Fisch had no choice but to stick with the redshirt freshman when all signs pointed early on to him putting de Laura back out there when healthy.

Fifita went 6-2 as a starter, and technically picked up a seventh win in relief when he led Arizona on a game-winning drive at Stanford. He capped off the season by setting a school record with 527 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Territorial Cup en route to his conference-record fifth Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honor.

If Fifita doesn’t win Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year next week there’s a problem with the voting machines.

Running backs: A-

Midseason grade: A

Arizona finished sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing, at 148.9 yards per game, and fourth in yards per carry (4.8), but only scored 16 times on the ground. Three of those were by de Laura.

Jonah Coleman emerged as the go-to back when Michael Wiley got hurt midseason, rushing for 851 yards and five TDs as well as 6.9 yards per carry, while DJ Williams was second with 345 yards and four scores. Wiley had his fewest carries (63) and yards (292) since 2020 because of injury, but he made up for it with 28 catches and five TDs.

Arizona’s RBs combined for 56 receptions and 685 yards, best since 2019.

Receivers/tight ends: B

Midseason grade: B+

Jacob Cowing (83) and Tetairoa McMillan (80) finished second and third in the Pac-12 in receptions, McMillan’s 1,242 yards were third-most in the league and they were two of the five pass catchers in the league with 10 or more TDs. Cowing’s late TD catch in the T-Cup gave him 11, tying for the school record.

But the No. 3 receiver spot, held most of the season by Montana Lemonious-Craig, didn’t produce anywhere close to as much as Arizona would have hoped. MLC had 27 catches for 291 yards and three TDs, way below the 39-702-8 that T-Mac had in 2022 as the third option and pretty comparable to Dorian Singer’s numbers at USC.

The push to develop one of the younger receivers into a reliable target didn’t happen, as Kevin Green Jr., AJ Jones and Malachi Riley combined for 16 receptions and no scores on 127 pass snaps.

Making up for that, though, was another big year from Tanner McLachlan, whose 42 catches, 500 yards and four TDs were all better than 2022 and over the two seasons has made him Arizona’s career receptions leader by a tight end.

Offensive line: A

Midseason grade: A

By far the most reliable part of Arizona’s offense all season was the offensive line, with four guys starting all 12 games and playing 3,214 of 3,296 total snaps. Jordan Morgan returned to his pre-knee injury form, and then some, while a full season of Wendell Moe at left guard made the QB’s blind side very well protected. Jonah Savaiinaea went from a Freshman All-American right guard to a all-conference caliber right tackle, filling in at his old spot at various times during the season, and center Josh Baker quietly put together an error-free season in the middle.

The line really solidified when freshman Raymond Pulido got to full strength in November after a preseason bike accident and a leg injury in late September kept him on the sideline. He allowed only three pressures in 148 pass snaps.

Defensive line: A-

Midseason grade: A-

A huge key to Arizona’s defense going from allowing 36.5 points per game to 20.8 was the front four (and sometimes five) that Johnny Nansen incessantly rotated all season. None of the 15 players who lined up on the D-line this season played more than 60 percent of the snaps, with edges Taylor Upshaw and Anthony Ward the only ones on there half the time.

That freshness enabled Arizona to dominate the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents by 60 points in the final period.

Upshaw’s 8.5 sacks tied for 4th in the Pac-12 and were the most for a UA player since Scooby Wright III had 14 in 2014. His 11.5 tackles for loss were most since Colin Schooler’s 21.5 in 2018 and most for a defensive lineman since 2011.

Four other DLs had at least four TFLs (compared to two in 2022) and the D-line accounted for 19 of 31 sacks. And the 111.3 rushing yards allowed per game, fifth-best in Pac-12, were the fewest since 2004.

Linebackers: B-

Midseason grade: B+

Jacob Manu finished the regular season one behind Oregon State’s Easton Mascarenas-Arnold for the Pac-12 lead in tackles, but his 106 were the most for a UA player since Schooler had 119 in 2019. He also had 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, furthering himself as the first big find of the Fisch era considering the Wildcats were the only FBS program to offer him a scholarship.

It’s linebackers other than Manu, though, that are most responsible for the season grade being the worst of any position group.

Four other players started at the second LB spot, including Martell Irby, who is a defensive back, and none were able to do much. Justin Flowe had the most starts (five) but often looked out of place and hardly played on defense the last four games, while Daniel Heimuli all but disappeared in the second half of the season.

Freshman Kamuela Ka’aihue started the Territorial Cup but graded terribly, finishing the year with Arizona’s lowest defensive grade (46.0). Fellow freshman Taye Brown was the second-best LB in terms of grade but he logged only 64 snaps in six games.

If there’s one position where Arizona may look to immediately upgrade this offseason via the transfer portal, this is the one.

Secondary: B+

Midseason grade: B

Arizona finished fourth in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 229.6 yards per game. But the more notable number was 13, as in the number of passing TDs it gave up all season.

That’s fewest in the conference and tied for 15th in FBS. Last year the Wildcats gave up 25 passing TDs.

Sophomores Tacario Davis and Ephesians Prysock were the epitome of lockdown corners, allowing only 56 catches on 107 targets with 23 forced incompletions. Davis’ 16 forced incompletions were second-most among power-conference players.

Treydan Stukes thrived as the nickel corner, graded in the top three on the team both against the run and in coverage, while Irby was a Swiss Army knife.

The safety position began the season as one of the biggest question marks but ended it looking superb. Dalton Johnson established himself as a tremendous run stopper, showing not everything Kevin Sumlin did was bad, while Gunner Maldonado went from being one of the lowest-graded safeties in the country the first month to the team’s most efficient tackler.

And Genesis Smith is a future star in the making, especially if he continues to be mentored by Duane Akina and Chuck Cecil.

Special teams: B

Midseason grade: C

Tyler Loop was tied for the best field goal percentage in FBS history before missing three of his last four attempts, but he did kick the game winner at Colorado and was both automatic on extra points and kickoffs. He’s got another year of eligibility left and here’s hoping he uses it (at Arizona).

Kyle Ostendorp averaged 42 yards on 29 punts, a significant drop from his school-record 49.2 averages two years ago, and just didn’t look the same as he did the past two seasons. It thankfully never impacted games.

Arizona’s return game was almost nonexistent, save for Cowing having a couple big returns against Oregon State. The 78 total punt returns yards were fewest for the UA since 2016 and the 13.4 average on kick returns made it pointless to not just fair catch every time.