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Arizona Football: 2021 Wildcats Season Preview and Prediction

The Wildcats rank No. 91 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2021
Michael Wiley, Arizona Wildcats Football

Michael Wiley and Arizona are embarking on a new era under first-year head coach Jedd Fisch

A few weeks after rival Arizona State buried Arizona 70–7 in the Territorial Cup, some Sun Devil boosters paid to put the score and a not-so-subtle message — "No Pity For the Kitty" — on an Interstate 10 billboard between Tucson and Tempe. By then Arizona had fired head coach Kevin Sumlin, paid him a $7.5 million buyout and re-started the Wildcat football program for the fifth time in 20 years.

It hired off-the-beaten-path career assistant Jedd Fisch from Bill Belichick's New England staff. Fisch is a job-hopper who over the last 20 years had coached at Michigan, Miami, Florida, UCLA, Minnesota and for the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, and Baltimore Ravens. That's 12 jobs in 20 years. Understandably, Fisch's hiring was not well received by Arizona's shrinking fan base.

The 44-year-old former high school tennis player seemed to quiet the critics in his first month in Tucson. He hired two Arizona legends with significant NFL experience, safeties coach Chuck Cecil and defensive line coach Ricky Hunley. He persuaded Brennan Carroll, son of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, to leave Seattle and become UA's offensive coordinator. He hired Don Brown, known as "Dr. Blitz" during his days as defensive coordinator at Michigan. He even hired a lead strength and conditioning coach from Alabama. Then Fisch hired UA Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi to be his special advisor. He had UA legend Rob Gronkowski coach the spring game.

Fisch easily won the offseason. Now comes the hardest part: winning games.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Arizona's Offense for 2021

Starting quarterback Grant Gunnell transferred to Memphis, but it wasn't considered a big loss. He is likely to be replaced by Gunner Cruz, who spent last season at Washington State, or perhaps freshman Will Plummer, who stepped in for the injured Gunnell and threw 80 passes in the truncated 2020 season. A third option is South Florida transfer Jordan McCloud, who started 17 games for the Bulls. McCloud's expected summer arrival could change the Cruz-Plummer dynamic once he goes through fall training camp.

Fisch is significantly changing Arizona's offense. There will be no passing circus. The quarterback will frequently be under center, and running the ball will be a priority, which is a total change from the Sumlin years. At running back, Michael Wiley (7.2 ypc) brings explosiveness, and Northwestern transfer Drake Anderson will get a crack in Fisch's more traditional offense.

If Arizona has a strength on offense, it would be its receiving group, stacked with six players who have been productive. Stanley Berryhill III, Tayvian Cunningham, Boobie Curry and Jamarye Joiner have combined for 162 career receptions for 2,075 yards.

The offensive line is useful, if not promising. Jordan Morgan, Donovan Laie and Josh McCauley have combined to start 61 games. They may not be star-level players, but they have been productive.

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Previewing Arizona's Defense for 2021

The uber-aggressive Brown immediately changed the laid-back style of his predecessors. The defensive line has Pac-12-type size that it has lacked for the last few years. Interior linemen Aaron Blackwell, Trevon Mason and Kyon Barrs have considerable experience. So do defensive ends JB Brown and Jalen Harris, who could develop into a top NFL prospect.

The linebacking unit has been totally rebuilt. Bowling Green transfer Jerry Roberts and Wisconsin transfer Malik Reed are expected to push for starting jobs. Senior Anthony Pandy is a team leader with good size and speed. Behind them, the options are not promising: former walk-on Rourke Freeburg was an emergency starter in 2020 and is likely to be in the rotation again.

Arizona's secondary appears to be a capable group. Cornerback Isaiah Rutherford, a transfer from Notre Dame, should start immediately. Fellow corner Christian Roland-Wallace was probably UA's top defensive back last season. Safety Gunner Maldonado, a transfer from Northwestern, should play immediately next to Christian Young in the deep secondary.

Previewing Arizona's Specialists for 2021

Senior kicker Lucas Havrisik has been a two-year regular and has been dependable, with a range out to 57 yards. Punter Kyle Ostendorp was inconsistent as a 2020 starter. Cunningham, who is a sprinter on Arizona's track team, is the No. 1 option on kickoff returns. Joiner, a former high school quarterback and sprinter, is the top punt returner.

Final Analysis

Fisch hasn't been timid in setting goals. "I expect us to be the hardest team everyone plays on the schedule," he says. "I expect us to be the toughest team everyone plays, the most challenging team. That comes from playing great defense and having an attitude, which I think Coach Brown will bring right away."

Although Fisch reestablished connections with fans and the community and brought back high-profile ex-Wildcats, none of them will be in uniform when UA opens against BYU in Las Vegas. Finding a way to win with essentially the same roster that went 0–12 under Sumlin in his final 12 games by a combined score of 481–224 will require more than some good PR work.

National Ranking: 91

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