It’s been a busy first two weeks on the job for new coach Jedd Fisch, who faces the monumental task of pulling the Arizona Wildcats program up off the ground.
No area does he have his hands full more than when it comes to rebuilding the roster.
By the time the 2020 season ended, Arizona had less than 70 scholarship players in the program. That number dipped even further after a slew of Wildcats entered the NCAA transfer portal, while a few seniors declared for the NFL Draft rather than take advantage of an extra year of eligibility.
Thankfully, Fisch and his staff managed to convince three wide receivers—redshirt sophomore Jamarye Joiner, sophomore Boobie Curry and freshman Ma’Jon Wright—to withdraw from the portal and return to the team. A fourth wideout, redshirt junior Stanley Berryhill III, recently decommitted from Ball State and could be coming back as well.
Arizona signed 16 players during the Early Signing Period in December, and since then it has gotten commitments from four FBS transfers and two more high school prospects. Additionally, three prep recruits who committed to the UA before December have not signed, though indications right now are they will do so in February.
That means the Wildcats would be adding 25 scholarship players to the 2021 roster, which is the normal maximum allowed for each recruiting cycle. It’s possible to go beyond that limit by counting mid-year enrollees toward the previous class, so for each newcomer who starts classes this coming week it would give the UA another scholarship to use.
It is not known how many signees will take this route, but a safe guess would be Arizona has about three scholarships left to give. With that in mind, what are the Wildcats’ biggest needs?
These are the positions Arizona would be most inclined to add someone at:
Even if Rhett Rodriguez were to withdraw from the transfer portal, Arizona would have only two games of starting experience at the position. Without him, Will Plummer’s start against Colorado last month would be it.
There’s also Kevin Doyle, who has yet to play in three seasons, and presumed February signee Clay Millen, the No. 20 pro-rated passer in the 2021 class per 247Sports.
Considering Fisch’s pedigree has revolved heavily around quarterbacks, he could choose to roll with what he has and try to develop from within. Or he could hedge his bets and pick up a transfer, preferably one that has some notable experience.
Possible pickups: The biggest name out there is probably Ryan Hilinski, who threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019 at South Carolina but hardly played in 2020. The California native—Berryhill was his high school teammate—would have three years of eligibility remaining, which would fit with Fisch’s other transfer pickups, but at this position getting a one-year rental may also be an option. In that case, ex-Kentucky QB Terry Wilson could be an intriguing addition with his 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
The hiring of Jordan Paopao is as clear an indication as possible that Arizona plans to make the tight end a viable part of the offense. Despite promises as such during the Kevin Sumlin era that never happened, with TEs catching 20 passes in 29 games the past three seasons.
Bryce Wolma is one of the seniors coming back, and he figures to see a big boost in targets in 2021. Stacey Marshall also should have a much bigger role after hardly playing last season, as could Zach Williams, and Arizona signed a former quarterback to play the position in Colby Powers.
The tight end room certainly has space for one more big body, doesn’t it?
Possible pickups: The big prize on the market is Arik Gilbert, who was the No. 5 player in the 2020 class and had 35 catches for 368 yards and two TDs in eight games with LSU, but getting him will be next to impossible. A more attainable target could be ex-Oklahoma TE Grant Calcaterra, a California native who had committed to to Auburn for 2021 but now is back in the portal along with his nine career TD catches.
New defensive coordinator Don Brown ran a 4-3 at Michigan, so Arizona having a projected 12 scholarship linebackers on the roster may be enough. However, some LBs like Jalen Harris are likely to move to defensive end, so Anthony Pandy would be the only guy with extensive experience while seven guys would be in their first or second year of college in 2021.
Giving Pandy another veteran guy next to him would take some pressure off the senior to be the “quarterback” of the defense and focus more on making plays.
Possible pickups: Arizona already landed a Notre Dame transfer from California in cornerback Isaiah Rutherford, so why not another? Jack Lamb played in 20 games for the Fighting Irish in three seasons, and before that he was a top-100 prospect in the 2018 class. There are also three former Michigan linebackers in the portal, so many one of them might want to reunite with Dr. Blitz.
This is by far Arizona’s biggest immediate need, even with Rutherford’s commitment. He is very likely to be a starter in the fall, while the other starting spot is 2020 fixture Christian Roland-Wallace’s to lose.
But if the Wildcats are indeed going to inherit Brown’s blitz-heavy approach they’ll need much more from corner.
Veterans McKenzie Barnes and Malik Hausman will be back after both opting out in 2020, though they have one career start between them, and the status of Bobby Wolfe is up in the air after he opted out.
This is a spot that begs for a veteran addition, either to play nickel corner or earn a starting spot.
Possible pickups: Colin Samuel began his career at UCLA, playing in all 13 games in 2017 when Fisch was on the staff, but the former 4-star prospect in the 2015 class spent the last two years with Houston but didn’t play due to injury. Another option is Bronson Boyd, whom the UA offered in 2017 class before he went to Utah and eventually moved from receiver to CB.
Just like corner, this position is critical to Arizona playing a pressure defense and needs a lot of capable bodies. There are some solid returners like Isaiah Mays, Jaxen Turner and Christian Young, while redshirt senior Jarrius Wallace is eligible to return in 2021.
Northwestern transfer Gunner Maldonado should be in the mix as well, but more depth for safeties coach Chuck Cecil to work with wouldn’t hurt.
Possible pickups: Fisch plucked an assistant coach out of ASU’s athletic department, so what’s stopping him from grabbing an available Sun Devil out of the portal? KJ Jarrell was the No. 5 prospect in Arizona in the 2017 class but injuries kept him from contributing in Tempe. A former Army All-American, the UA was one of the first schools to offer him back in 2015.