The Arizona Wildcats have a new defense but a familiar dilemma:
They still don’t have enough depth.
The first unit has looked good during spring practice. For the most part, Don Brown’s group has had the better of the play.
But Arizona is still a handful of injuries away from having to play inexperienced players, freshmen or walk-ons at several spots. Brown and UA coach Jedd Fisch did as much as they could to address potential deficiencies through the NCAA transfer portal – and they aren’t done yet – but it’s impossible to fill every hole in one offseason.
So while Brown works with the defense for one more week in April, he looks forward to June.
“We’ll get an influx here in the first week of June, and not just with high school players that are coming in but our transfer group as well,” Brown said after Saturday night’s scrimmage. “I think that will fortify us both up front and at linebacker.”
Two veteran linebackers handpicked by Brown are due to arrive with other newcomers on June 7: Treshaun Hayward from Western Michigan, the 2019 Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year; and Jerry Roberts from Bowling Green.
Brown said Hayward could play both inside linebacker positions, the “Mike” and the “Will.” Roberts is projected to play “Sam” but conceivably could play the other two spots as well. Joining Anthony Pandy, Derick Mourning and Issaiah Johnson, they will give Arizona five viable, veteran options for the three linebacker spots.
“We feel really good about their talent,” Fisch said. “We feel really good about the quality of player that they are, that they are (going to be) able to immediately impact our program.
“And ... they’re gonna make the guys that are here better. We said it probably the first time we ever talked that rising tides lift all ships. I believe that in everything.”
Brown intimated that the last available scholarship for the class of 2021 would be used on a defensive lineman. The Wildcats have four set starters in JB Brown, Jalen Harris, Trevon Mason and Kyon Barrs. Paris Shand, who can play inside and outside, and defensive end Nahe Sulunga also have had promising camps. The rotation at defensive tackle will be enhanced when veteran Aaron Blackwell returns from injury.
Injuries have limited Arizona’s options at safety. Jaxen Turner and Jaydin Young have taken almost all of the first-team reps. Newcomer Gunner Maldonado has missed much of spring. Isaiah Mays has been limited while rehabbing an upper-body injury.
“Our fourth safety, he’s got a red shirt on,” Don Brown said of Mays. “When the ball is thrown, he can’t go play the ball. But at least he’s practicing.
“That’s a tough deal. But he’s gaining valuable experience too, and we think he’s a talented guy.”
Starting cornerbacks Christian Roland-Wallace and Isaiah Rutherford (another addition via the transfer portal) have been stellar. Malik Hausman, who’s been playing the nickel position, had perhaps his best practice of spring Saturday night.
All told, Brown would like to have 17-18 players he considers “first-teamers” and about eight more to fill out the second unit. The Wildcats aren’t there quite yet.
At one point in December, it seemed as if almost every Arizona receiver had entered the transfer portal. Stanley Berryhill III was part of that movement. He also was one of the players who changed his mind and decided to come back.
It has proved to be a prudent decision. Berryhill has been the Wildcats’ top offensive playmaker during spring camp. Fisch said no other skill-position player has had more positive plays and fewer negative plays.
The latest example came Saturday night, when Berryhill caught a pass over the middle from Gunner Cruz, bounced off a tackle attempt by Young and raced into the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.
“It’s good to make good plays, but I make mistakes here and there,” Berryhill said. “So just trying to learn the offense the best I can and help other players a little bit.”
Regarding his decision to return to play for his hometown school – after committing to transfer to Ball State – Berryhill said: “I just had a great conversation with Coach Fisch and Coach KC (receivers coach Kevin Cummings) and felt like I started something here, so I might as well finish it with my brothers. I think something special is brewing here in Tucson.”
Another Tucson product, Jamarye Joiner, broke out Saturday after having a steady but relatively uneventful camp through 11 practices. Joiner caught a 34-yard fade pass down the left sideline from Will Plummer, then made the play of the night – a contested, juggling, one-handed 25-yard TD reception from Kevin Doyle.
On the first play of the scrimmage, Cruz ran a play-action fake and launched a deep pass for receiver Brian Casteel, who had a step on his defender. The pass landed 2-3 yards long, a common problem for Cruz during spring camp.
Fisch explained why that might be the case: Cruz didn’t have any opportunities to work with Arizona’s receivers after enrolling in March.
“He didn’t arrive until the day of spring practice,” Fisch said. “So he did not throw one ball with one player. He just actually met them the day of spring ball.”
Fisch expects Cruz, who has plenty of arm strength, to improve his downfield accuracy over the summer during player-run practices. He’s slightly ahead of Plummer for the starting QB job at the moment. Transfer Jordan McCloud will join the competition in June.
“It’s gonna come,” Berryhill said. “Every time you get a new quarterback, there’s always that gray area where you don’t really have chemistry yet. So over the summer, we’re gonna work hard ... to make sure we get our timing down.”
- Harris continued his strong camp, recording a pair of sacks. His younger brother, Jason Harris, made an impact late, registering a tackle-for-loss and a sack.
- Eddie Siaumau-Sanitoa returned a fumble for a touchdown, then punted the ball into the stands.
- Cornerback Treydan Stukes played well despite his right hand being heavily wrapped.
- Offensive players who scored or made significant plays received a scepter when they approached the sideline. It apparently is the brainchild of assistant strength coach Tiger Jones.
- With Arizona’s top three running backs out, freshman Stevie Rocker Jr. worked with the first-team offense. He continued to make plays, especially in the passing game.
- Michael Wiley and Jalen John have been banged up, so their absence was no surprise. Drake Anderson warmed up but was a late scratch. He worked with a trainer on his lower body just before the scrimmage began and should be back Tuesday, Fisch said.
- Center Josh McCauley returned after missing Thursday’s practice and worked with the first unit.
- With defensive end JB Brown out because of a respiratory ailment, Shand worked with the first-team defensive line.
- Receiver Jaden Mitchell, who’s rehabbing from knee surgery, dressed and participated in part of warmups. He has yet to practice this spring.
- New UA men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd spoke to the team after practice. Earlier, he was chatting on the sideline with executive senior associate athletic director Erika Barnes.
- Several hundred fans attended the nighttime practice, which also featured cheerleaders and about two dozen members of the UA marching band.