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Arizona football training camp: Tetairoa McMillan poised to build off stellar freshman year

Being left off Biletnikoff watch list will be a motivating factor

arizona-wildcats-football-tetairoa-mcmillan-biletnikoff-preseason-training-camp-sophomore-2023 Arizona Athletics

The Biletnikoff Award released its preseason watch list earlier this week, a tally of 49 wide receivers and tight ends considered to be the best pass catchers in college football entering the 2023 season. It feels like a 50th name should have been on there, to make for a nice round number, but for some reason the folks in charge didn’t bother to include Tetairoa McMillan.

T-Mac himself doesn’t think he deserved to be on that initial list, either, but still considers it a snub.

“I was the third receiver on the team, my stats last year weren’t really up there,” McMillan said Friday. “So I understand why they didn’t put me up there, but obviously at the end of the day I’m gonna have confidence in myself and say that they’re sleeping on me.”

It’s hard to think of someone of McMillan’s stature as being underrated, especially considering the hype with which he arrived at Arizona as the highest-rated signee in school history. And his 2022 numbers were pretty darn good for a first-year college player, catching 39 passes for 702 yards and a FBS freshman-best eight touchdowns.

That performance landed him on most Freshman All-America teams. But while other sophomores like UCLA’s J. Michael Sturidvant (who was at Cal in 2022), Texas A&M’s Evan Stewart and Texas Tech’s Jerand Bradley made the initial Biletnikoff cut, McMillan will have to play his way onto the list during the season.

“There’s a lot of really good college football receivers in this league,” WR coach Kevin Cummings said. “And I think he’s just got his feet wet last year. Once we start the season, a couple games into it, the world will recognize who he is. But I like that he’s a little bit underrated.”

McMillan caught a TD pass in his first career game, the season opener at San Diego State, and was on the field for 51 of 75 offensive snaps. But not the first, the result of a wardrobe malfunction due to having to wear a different jersey for punt return coverage, leading to fellow freshman AJ Jones technically getting the start over T-Mac.

“That was my first game, so I wasn’t really prepared for that,” he said. “Whether it’s the weather, or just the college atmosphere, but just coming to the sideline having to take off the jersey, it was kind of a struggle.”

That was one of several lessons T-Mac learned in his first season, another being that he wasn’t ready to run all the routes in Arizona’s offensive system. Cummings said there were certain ones they didn’t have him run because of the complexity.

“I think that was just part of him making the transition from high school to college,” Cummings said. “You can’t always tempo off the ball. Sometimes you got to come off the ball with real speed and sometimes you do have tempo out of it. So I think just learning the details of our offense and how to run each and every route. But now he’s got the full playbook to his disposal.”

Said McMillan: “I was kinda the young buck last year, so I had to play my role. Obviously this year, I gotta take up a bigger role. So anything I can do to help other team and be more versatile, I’m all for it.”

Another lesson was how to play with more weight on his 6-foot-5 frame. He arrived in January 2022 weighing 185 pounds and quickly added 20, but didn’t wear it well.

“It was sloppy weight,” he said. “I know how to carry the weight now.”

That’s led to improved strength and physicality, which he’ll need in order to handle a bigger route tree. While great at jump balls in 2022, T-Mac only caught 39 of 81 targets and he was just 7 of 21 on contested throws. Compare that to Dorian Singer, who was 12 of 24 on contested balls, while Jacob Cowing was 6 of 14.

And T-Mac was credited with forcing only one missed tackle after a catch, his 5.0 yards per catch after contact lowest on the team, while Cowing broke 16 tackles and averaged 7.5 yards after contact.

These are all things Cummings, head coach Jedd Fisch and others on the offensive staff have repeatedly told McMillan. It can get tedious, but he knows it’s all for a good cause.

“I’m good at taking coaching,” he said. “All of the design that coach Fisch and the coaching staff put together for the offense just allows us to have great opportunities, and I will just say I capitalize on those opportunities. I feel like I tried to implement that into my game.”

That’s about all T-Mac was willing to say about himself. Tooting his own horn isn’t really his thing.

“I let other people talk for me,” he said. “I let the game speak for itself.”