Gimino: Examining Arizona's initial depth chart - Tucson News Now

Gimino: Examining Arizona's initial depth chart

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The Arizona Wildcats released their first depth chart of the season Sunday in advance of the opener Saturday against BYU in Glendale.

Let's dive in to find how what we know and what we only thought we knew:


Coach Rich Rodriguez has joked that he might wait until a minute before kickoff before announcing a starter, and, true to form, the depth chart didn't tip his hand. It's junior Anu Solomon OR sophomore Brandon Dawkins.

Judging from the limited time the media got to see fall camp, and by comments from the coaches and players, Solomon and Dawkins have been getting equal opportunities with the first-team offense.

Solomon has the experience of being a two-year starter and is accurate in the short and medium passing zones. Dawkins, superior athletically, has closed the gap in terms of his knowledge of the playbook.

Bottom line?

"We have two quarterbacks that are good enough to win with," Rodriguez said.

Not every Pac-12 team is so lucky.

Final thought: True freshman Khalil Tate is listed as fourth-stringer behind walk-on Zach Werlinger and seems headed for a redshirt. When I asked Rodriguez a couple of weeks ago if the dual-threat Tate could be used as an all-purpose offensive weapon, the coached said: "His only purpose right now is to try to learn quarterback. He's not ready for all-purpose. He's ready for one purpose -- learn quarterback."

Running back

Lots to like here: It's Nick Wilson OR Orlando Bradford on the first team, followed by true freshman J.J. Taylor, who was one of the most buzzed-about players in camp.

Injuries limited Wilson, who rushed for 1,375 yards as a true freshman, to just three of the final seven games as a sophomore. He had only 19 carries after Oct. 10.

"You're conscious of that a little bit, but it's not deep thoughts," said co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee.

"Nick had a great camp. He has overcome all of the injuries. He was banged up, which is why he dropped off some, but his mental part was always there. Nick is a smart football player. He never dropped off there. To get healthy again and be mentally strong, I'm excited to see him get at it again."

Wilson might not be a Ka'Deem Carey-like workhorse, but he doesn't have to be, considering the promise Bradford showed last season (208 yards on 47 carries) as a true freshman, and the potential of the cat-quick Taylor.

Final thought: The top three looks good, and the future looks better, with four-star running back Nathan Tilford from Colony Hill in Upland, Calif., committed to the Cats.

Wide receiver

Three of the four starters are no surprise: seniors Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant.

The twist is that Grant is at an outside position, opening up a spot in the slot for sophomore Shun Brown. Most preseason projections would have tabbed converted cornerback Cam Denson as a starter on the outside.

It might not matter much. Arizona cross-trains its receivers at the various positions, and Denson is listed as a backup to Phillips in the slot. Denson, in space, is still an exciting thought.

A few new names for you to know: Redshirt freshman Cedric Peterson and 6-5 junior college transfer Shawn Poindexter are listed as backups, and true freshman Devaughn Cooper makes the chart as a third-stringer in the slot.

At tight end, the persistent question is how much Arizona will use the position in the passing game. Rodriguez recently said he likes the depth there, and Trevor Wood, coming off a redshirt season due to injury, could be the all-around tight end the Wildcats have lacked.

Final thought: There is nice depth at wideout, although no sure-fire superstar. There's also no Tony Ellison among the top nine receivers; he's been marked as a guy with good potential for the past year-and-a-half. It's not clear if he is dealing with an injury.

Offensive line

The Wildcats are dealing with the death of projected starting center Zach Hemmila, and redshirt freshman Nathan Eldridge steps into his role. The rest of the line is as projected: Left tackle Layth Friekh, left guard Freddie Tagaloa, right guard Jacob Alsadek and right tackle Gerhard de Beer.

Tagaloa is the only senior on the two deep.

Arizona likes the potential of its younger guys, who will be asked to help fill out an eight-man rotation.

Final thought: Touted true freshman Michael Eletise worked at guard and center in fall camp but did not crack the two-deep. A redshirt season is never a bad thing for an offensive lineman, if that is indeed in the cards.

Defensive line

This is a trouble spot. A pair of walk-ons are among the three-man front -- end Justin Belknap and 247-pound nose tackle Parker Zellers. Belknap had a great camp to win the job and, like Zellers, plays with a lot of passion.

Senior defensive tackle Sani Fuimaono dropped around 50 pounds from last season in order to be more active in terms of getting into the backfield. He's the clear leader of the unit.

"He is the father of the group," said defensive lineman Marcus Griffin. "He has one kid already, but he has 10 or 11 more with us."

The new defense, coordinated by Marcel Yates, will feature more pre-snap movement and the lineman will be asked to make more plays -- not just occupy blockers and eat up gaps, as was their no-glory task under coordinator Jeff Casteel.

"It's completely different," Griffin said.

"We went from sitting back and reading, to attacking and creating chaos. That's the complete opposite. You couldn't ask for a better situation for us. We just have to create chaos. Everything starts with us."

Depth is a question, as is the ability of the defensive linemen to create pressure. Other than Fuimaono, proven production is in short supply.

Final thought: Griffin, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't shy in talking about how he thought the change in philosophy along the line better fit his skills. But he still hasn't cracked the two deep in an undersized front that could use his 292 pounds.


This position aligns with preseason projections: DeAndre' Miller on the strongside, Cody Ippolito in the middle and Paul Magloire on the weakside.

Miller will be a hybrid end and a key pass rusher off the edge. Magloire, a converted safety, is a X-factor as a jack of all trades. The middle linebacker position, cursed last year with injuries, should be fine with Ippolito backed by Cal graduate transfer Michael Barton in what should be a healthy rotation. Barton made 169 tackles, including 16.5 for loss, with the Bears.

John Kenny is a former Iowa fullback in his first season of eligibility with Arizona. Jake Matthews is back after missing the final two games of last season -- and spring ball -- because of a foot injury.

Final thought: Miller and Magloire need to be two of the top playmakers on a more-aggressive defense. The unit looks solid, although the Wildcats don't want to have to dip into their depth. There is still no sign of playing time for former four-star recruit Marquis Ware, a redshirt sophomore.


The key development here came in the spring, as Dane Cruikshank, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season, emerged as a starter. He has the size (6-1, 204) Arizona hasn't had at cornerback in a while.

Cornerback depth is shaky, and Rodriguez said he is concerned about the lack of experience among his safety depth.

You can see why. The three safety backups have not taken a college snap: Redshirt freshman Anthony Mariscal, and true freshmen Chacho Ulloa and Isaiah Hayes.

Tellas Jones had three sacks last season and will be a key pass-rusher. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is the long, agile safety the Wildcats crave and are collecting more of in recruiting. Jarvis McCall, aced out of his cornerback gig by Cruikshank, re-emerges as the starting free safety.

Mariscal is probably next man up when the Wildcats use a six-DB look in passing situations.

"We have more bodies now than we've had, and when the next recruiting class comes in, we'll have even more," Rodriguez said of the safety position. "There are certain defenses where you might play four or five at a time. We'll play at least five for sure."

Final thought: The guess is that Hayes is the No. 5 safety. He had the benefit of enrolling early and going through spring ball, which Ulloa did not. "I feel like if I had come in the fall, my mind would have been scrambling a little bit," Hayes said. "Coming in the spring was definitely a blessing. I'm glad I did it."

Special teams

Josh Pollack is the co-starter at place-kicker and punter. The redshirt sophomore's competition at kicker is Edgar Gastellum (expected to handle kickoffs), while redshirt freshman Matt Aragon is competing for the punting job.

Pollack likely will handle both roles, at least early in the opener against BYU on Saturday in Glendale.

Nate Phillips, certainly a good-hands choice, is the primary punt returner. Freshman J.J. Taylor could be a more dynamic option, if he earns the coaches' trust.

Speedster Tyrell Johnson, Taylor and Shun Brown are listed as kick returners.

Nick Reinhardt is back after finishing last season as the team's long-snapper.

Final thought: Let the games begin.

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