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Arizona football notebook: Run game still a work in progress, secondary could see more shuffling

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-offense-defense-borjon-pulido-secondary-utep-2023 Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona is averaging 31 points through its first two games, a tick above last season’s average of 30.8, but how the Wildcats have gone about producing when they have the ball has been very different from a year ago. And not necessarily by design.

The UA’s 454.5 yards per game is slightly below the 2022 average of 462.4, while the rushing and passing numbers are equally down. Yet look closer and you’ll see some individual oddities.

While Tetairoa McMillan’s 226 receiving yards are far and away the most on the team, running back Michael Wiley is the top pass catcher with 14 in two games. He tied a career high with eight receptions at Mississippi State, in doing so becoming the school career leader in catches by a running back with 109, and is on pace for 84 which would be fourth-most in school history.

But Wiley isn’t Arizona’s rushing leader. It’s quarterback Jayden de Laura, whose 53-yard touchdown run against NAU and team-best 44 yards against MSU has him at the top with 91. De Laura also has both UA rushing scores.

Wiley is averaging only 4.05 yards on 21 carries, far below his 6.82 rate in 2022, but he said it’s only a matter of time before his (and the team’s) rushing numbers improve.

“I think the running game is going okay so far,” Wiley said. “It’s just the start of the season, there’s going to be some things that we kind of have to clean up. We’re definitely taking care of that with the film and the preparation that we have. Without a doubt I definitely think the run game will be where it should be.”

UTEP has allowed 392 rushing yards and five rushing TDs against its two FBS opponents, so the opportunity could be there to work on the ground game this weekend. Just don’t use the E word around offensive coordinator/O-line coach Brennan Carroll.

“In my mind, personally, there is no such thing as establishing the run,” he said. “I would like to run the football because I like the run the football, not because we need to do it. It just fits in the game plan. I think we’re always going to have some kind of balance. We like throwing the ball, but we need to be really a consistent running football team. And however we get to that, whether it’s running the ball 30 times the first half or 30 times the second half we have to find a way to keep that balance.”

Burgeoning Borjon

After not playing all last season, then logging 22 snaps in relief of Jordan Morgan in the season opener, redshirt sophomore Joe Borjon got his first career start at MSU. He played right tackle, sliding Jonah Savaiinaea back to right guard, and according to Pro Football Focus graded as the fourth-best offensive linemen out of the starters.

“For the first time going out there and starting in an environment like that he did admirable,” Carroll said of Borjon. “He handled himself well for the first time. Joe’s done a great job transferring what he had from high school and junior college to what we do here. It was a process that took time, he wasn’t really ready until kind of late spring. His development over the time he’s been here, he’s been fantastic.”

He may end up back in a relief role against UTEP, though, if true freshman Raymond Pulido is able to make his debut. Expected to be the starting right tackle in Week 1, Pulido was in a bike accident 48 hours before the NAU game and was not with the team for either contest.

“He’s got to have a healthy week of practice to get on the field, and if he does that, then I’m sure you’ll see him out there,” Carroll said.

The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Pulido, whom Arizona flipped from Alabama just before the Early Signing Period last December, was seen walking into the football facility on Tuesday afternoon and was expected to practice.

Revisiting the fake spike

If you woke up Sunday morning and wondered if that fake spike TD run by de Laura was a dream, you weren’t alone. That surreal play caught everyone off guard when it happened and is still making some Wildcats shake their head a few days later.

“Honestly, I was a little confused when it happened,” Wiley said. “Jayden kind of saw that the defense was kind of being lazy, and so I guess he just decided to just fake spike it and try to score. Credit to Jayden and the guts he had to do that.”

Looking at film of the play, Wiley wasn’t alone. Several receivers had started jogging back to the sideline, fully expecting the play to be whistled dead and a huddle to form with Jedd Fisch on what play to call next. Yet behind them a massive scrum was going on near the goal line, and eventually every UA player got in on the action.

“I realized kind of late,” Wiley said. “I saw Tanner (McLachlan) just kind of start helping him so I started helping.”

Carroll’s initial reaction: “A little bit of disbelief.”

Secondary shuffle

Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen confirmed what Fisch said Monday, that starting nickel corner Martell Irby was replaced in the second half by DJ Warnell Jr. for personnel reasons, not an injury. Irby had six tackles, including one for loss, and forced a fumble on MSU’s opening drive in his first start but did not see the field on the final seven defensive drives.

“Everybody’s got to know their assignments to stay on the field and be able to execute at the highest level,” Nansen said. “We just felt that second half, we made some adjustments because we wanted to run some some of our calls that we held on to. DJ was able to execute some of those calls.”

Irby was starting for Treydan Stukes, who is expected to return to action against UTEP after missing the MSU game. Dylan Wyatt could also be back, meaning Tacario Davis might go back to a reserve role after making his first career start in Starkville.

And the safety spots remain in flux, with Isaiah Taylor excelling in place of Gunner Maldonado during the first half as Maldonado sat out as punishment for his targeting ejection against NAU, while Dalton Johnson had Arizona’s top tackling grade per PFF and freshman Genesis Smith looked good in his limited action.

Maldonado, who started the second half, was Arizona’s second-lowest graded defender and was beat on two of MSU’s biggest plays after halftime: a 15-yard TD catch on a wheel route early in the third quarter and a 37-yard catch and run that set up the Bulldogs’ go-ahead field goal in the fourth.

“The best guys and the guys that are ready to play this week are guys who are gonna start,” Nansen said. “I trust all those kids back there, they’re capable. IT came in and played really well. When you look at what we did in the first half not having Gunner and not having Stukes, the back end held up. I trust what they’re doing back there.”