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Analyzing Arizona football’s season-opening depth chart

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True freshman Raymond Pulido (79) is expected to start at right guard
Arizona Athletics

Arizona officially ended training camp 10 days ago, moving fully into preparation for the season opener against NAU. At that time, we tried to predict what the depth chart would be for the NAU game.

Now that the actual one is out, it looks like we got 20 out of 22 starting spots right. Not so accurate when it came to the backups.

Arizona released its first depth chart on Thursday, one that features a true freshman (Raymond Pulido) starting at right guard for the second year in a row and transfers at five other starting positions. There are also two returning Wildcats set to make their first career starts, and a surprise starter on the defensive line who may have to sit out the first half.

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“The depth chart is for this game and this game only,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “And depending on how people play will determine if the depth chart moves at certain positions. That’s really just a starting point. The competition is not over.”

Only two starting spots were up for grabs on offense, and both went to the guys expected to land there. Colorado transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig will be the Z receiver, alongside Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan, with freshmen Malachi Riley, AJ Jones and Kevin Green Jr. listed as the respective backups. And 6-foot-6, 335-pound true freshman Raymond Pulido, whom the UA flipped from Alabama in December, will start at right guard as freshman All-American Jonah Savaiinaea slides over to right guard after starting all 12 games at RG in 2022.

Fisch called it ironic that both true freshmen to start the season opener during his tenure have been at the same position, but based on what he and the offensive staff saw from Pulido before he arrived on campus they figured this would be the end result.

“The size that Pulido walks in with, and his high school film told us that, not in the same regard as T-Mac a year ago, but close, that we said we’re expecting this guy to walk in and start,” Fisch said.

Redshirt freshman Isaiah Ward won the battle for the starting KAT position, and he’s in line to make his first career start after appearing in the final three games in 2022, while Georgia transfer Bill Norton is the starting nose tackle and ex-Michigan (and briefly Colorado) edge Taylor Upshaw is the starting defensive end.

Getting the nod at defensive tackle is junior Tia Savea, who beat out UCLA transfer Tyler Manoa despite dealing with injuries during training camp. Savea did not participate in the final scrimmage and was limited to seven games a year ago because of injury, but when healthy he’s been effective.

“He missed about seven days in training camp with a soft tissue injury, but the last seven days or so he came back at a very high level,” Fisch said. “And we believe that when Tia is playing healthy and selfless and ready to really take on responsibility of being a 3-technique, I think he’s one of the better ones that we’ll see in this league.

Savea blocked a field goal in the upset win at UCLA and also returned a fumble 18 yards in the Territorial Cup win over ASU.

But it was also in the T-Cup that Savea, along with cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace and offensive lineman Josh Donovan, were ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct during the second half. Two ASU players were booted as well, and both were set to miss the first half of the Sun Devils’ opener Thursday night against Southern Utah, while Roland-Wallace played in the first half for USC in its Week Zero win over San Jose State.

If Savea has to sit out the first half it would be Manoa getting the nod.

While most positions on the depth chart only go two deep, there are eight total players listed for the two outside D-line spots along with four inside. Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen has said seven to nine of those will play in the opener, likely more if the game is out of hand in the second half.

Four or five linebackers could play, too, though Jacob Manu and Washington transfer Daniel Heimuli will be the starters. Heimuli beat out Oregon transfer Justin Flowe, who our readers believe will be Arizona’s breakout newcomer this season.

In the secondary, Cal Poly transfer Dylan Wyatt will be the field cornerback alongside boundary corner Ephesians Prysock and nickel Treydan Stukes, while the starting safety spots went to Dalton Johnson and Gunner Maldonado.

Johnson, one of two players left from the 2021 recruiting class (along with backup right guard JT Hand) that signed immediately after Kevin Sumlin’s firing, will be making his first career start after playing mostly on special teams last season.

Fisch said “consistency throughout camp” led to Johnson and Maldonado winning arguably the closest position battle on the team. The ability for Maldonado to play both safety spots opened the door for Johnson to win the second job, with DJ Warnell Jr. listed as his backup and Isaiah Taylor backing up Maldonado.

“And then don’t forget about Genesis Smith,” Fisch said. “Genesis is young. I know he’s not necessarily listed right now. He’s certainly in the works and he certainly will be playing.”