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2021 Pac-12 Football Previews: Arizona Wildcats

If a clear leader emerges at quarterback, the Cats could be better than many expect

Posted on June 21, 2021


  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Arizona outlook is the third of 12 preseason previews to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the the Pac-12 season on August 28th.

Each preview is comprised of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.

Overview

The guard has changed in the Old Pueblo as a new era begins in the desert.

Fisch

After suffering a 70-7 defeat to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup, the UA administration moved fast to terminate Kevin Sumlin.

Even amidst a global pandemic resulting in substantial cuts to athletics’ revenue, that type of defeat just isn’t acceptable.

Enter Jedd Fisch.

The announcement of the hire of the former quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots was a shock to everyone following the search.

Immediately, allegations of shady connections between Fisch and University of Arizona President Robert Robbins surfaced, sending the fanbase into a rage that lasted until the moment Fisch’s opening press conference ended.

Like the flick of a light-switch, the perception instantly changed. Almost overnight, the first-time head coach became the anchor of Arizona Athletics.

Between making appearances at Arizona Women’s Basketball games, to supporting the softball team, and throwing out an opening pitch at a UA baseball game, Fisch has become the face of the athletic program.

Bruschi, Fisch, and Gronkowski | Arizona Athletics

His understanding of the legacy of the football team and respect for its alumni was enough to convince Rob Gronkowski to return to campus for the first time since leaving for the NFL after the 2008 season.

And UA legends Teddy Bruschi, Chuck Cecil, and Ricky Hunley all have roles on his staff.

The moniker “It’s Personal” quickly became the calling card of the team.

But building relationships is only half of the job, and it remains to be seen if Fisch can turn around a program riding a 12-game losing streak coming off its first winless season since at least 1931.

Best-Case Scenario

Projected starting quarterback Grant Gunnell unceremoniously entered the transfer portal not long after it became clear that former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone wouldn’t be retained on Fisch’s new staff.

Cruz

The gulf at the position led the quarterback specialist to focus on the portal himself, landing South Florida’s Jordan McCloud and Washington State’s Gunner Cruz.

Pitted against returning freshman Will Plummer, the three are battling it out for the starting role.

Assuming a clear leader emerges, the Cats could be better than many expect.

New coaching staffs tend to rally rosters in their first season, motivating players to step their game up. Last season, the entire country overlooked Colorado’s Karl Dorrell, who led CU to the Alamo Bowl while winning the Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor.

Fisch might not match those lofty accomplishments, but Arizona has the potential to pull off some upsets.

Cunningham

The wide receiver corps is the strength of the team, with multiple weapons and varying skill sets to get it done.

Tayvian Cunningham, Stanley Berryhill III, and Brian Casteel are speedy options that combined for all but two of UA’s receiving touchdowns in 2020, while Jamarye Joiner, Boobie Curry, and Ma’jon Wright have the size to win 50/50 balls.

The chemistry between the starting quarterback and his numerous weapons might be the difference in another disappointing season and an outside chance at a bowl game.

But the elephant in the room is the defense.

Since its 2014 Fiesta Bowl appearance, the Wildcat defense has continually regressed. Former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown now leads the unit, and he brought with him transfers from Norte Dame, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.

If Brown’s emphasis on blitzing and press-coverage is able to shore up Arizona’s atrocious 39.8 points per game allowed, the Cats might come close to knocking on the door of the postseason.

Worst Case Scenario

The pro-style offense Fisch attempts to implement in his first year stalls.

The three quarterbacks vying for the starting position aren’t able to execute the system on game day, leading to a bevy of turnovers and missed opportunities.

The talent at wide receiver is under utilized and wasted, while the running backs aren’t able to carry the team.

And even though the defense shows improvement in a sign of things to come, the inefficient offense results in multiple strings of back-to-back defeats.

It’s an ugly season that ends with a single win.

What Should Happen

The transfers on defense win starting roles and contribute in Brown’s new system.

Reed

Former Wisconsin linebacker Malik Reed, Northwestern safety Gunner Maldonado, and Notre Dame cornerback Isaiah Rutherford each start every game of the season, as they become key pieces of the heavy blitzing scheme.

Returning defensive back Christian Roland-Wallace continues his development, further distinguishing himself as the best player on Arizona’s defense and setting himself up for an NFL future.

Pandy

Senior leader and linebacker Anthony Pandy takes advantage of the new help around him, capping his career off with his most productive season.

And while Northwestern transfer running back Drake Anderson gets a respectable work load in an arguably crowded position group, true freshman Stevie Rocker Jr. forces his way onto the field and shines when given the chance.

What Must Happen

Staying healthy along the offensive line might be the most critical factor in the success of Arizona’s season. When at full strength, the unit fields a capable group with a mix of upper and underclassmen.

McCauley

Led by senior Josh McCauley, the line returns six players with starting experience.

But the lack of depth is apparent.

Baylor transfer Davis DiVall and early enrollee JT Hand could fill any gaps that develop, but injuries to the proven starters could jeopardize the entire offensive gameplan.

Greatest Strength

The threats at wide receiver are the strong suit of the Wildcats.

Though the eligibility of Ma’jon Wright is up in the air due to transferring out of the program and then back in, the unit has the depth and skill to match most teams in the South.

Ma’jon Wright | Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Cunningham might be one of the fastest receivers in the Conference, and Casteel is nearly able to keep pace.

The two have similar roles that the previous staff arguably failed to use effectively, as they sometimes cancelled each other out, with Cunningham seeming to get the shorter end of the stick at times.

But at the Spring Game, Cunningham looked stronger and faster than he has since arriving in Tucson, likely boosted by his Track and Field training that saw his 4×100 Relay team finish third in this year’s Pac-12 Championships.

Depending on how he is utilized in Fisch’s system, the senior could end up as the leader of the group. But Berryhill III and Joiner will have something to say about that.

Biggest Concern

Coming off a winless season, the better question might be: What isn’t the biggest concern?

Depth along the offensive line, lack of a defined starting quarterback, a porous secondary, and questions at linebacker are among the most pressing issues heading into the 2021 season.

To Fisch’s credit, he has utilized the transfer portal effectively and brought in clear starters at safety, linebacker, and cornerback.

But on a team with six conference wins over the past three seasons, there isn’t a position group outside of the receivers that escapes scrutiny.

Deciding Factors

At the end of the day, two position groups have the capability to change Arizona’s season: the running backs and defensive line.

Wiley

Led by Michael Wiley, the backs figure to take on a more prominent role in Fisch’s pro-style offense.

Anderson fits the bill for the type of player that should perform well in the system, and the two project to be the primary carriers throughout the season.

But the trajectory of the campaign could change if Jalen John, Bam Smith, or Rocker Jr. have a breakout game or two.

John

Smith has the shiftiness to see the field, and could continue to be utilized in the passing game out of the backfield. And John has the size Fisch is looking for.

A strong season from one of the three could push the Cats to within striking distance of a bowl game.

Yet, none of that could matter if UA isn’t able to get sacks. The defensive line struggled last year, managing to register just two in the five games played.

That’s an issue that figures to be squarely in Brown’s crosshairs as he implements his system.

If the blitzing mentality is successful with the athletes on the roster, Arizona could look like an entirely different team.

Schedule Analysis

The season begins with a neutral site contest against BYU, followed by home games against San Diego State and Northern Arizona.

If the Cats walk away from that slate with two wins, the Jedd Fisch Era will be off to a respectable start.

Oregon Ducks LogoA road game against Oregon opens Pac-12 play, followed by matchups with UCLA and Colorado.

A tough stretch against Washington and USC leads to a tilt with California, while Utah, Washington State, and Arizona State round out the year.

New coaching staffs are difficult to handicap before their first games, but UA has a history of upsetting ranked teams in Tucson.

In that sense, the matchups against the Huskies and Utes might be the opportunities for signature wins in Fisch’s first season.

But even under the most optimistic outlook, four or five victories might be the ceiling for the Cats in 2021.




—More from Dane Miller—