Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series wrapping up the 2021 Arizona football season.
The 2021 season is over for the Arizona Wildcats. Recruiting and roster reconstruction are in full swing.
With the Dec. 15 early signing date fast approaching and a boatload of changes on the way, we’re taking stock of the UA program.
We’ll examine the team’s offense, defense and special teams over the next three days — looking back at performances from this past season and ahead to what’s next for Jedd Fisch and his squad.
Part 1: Offense.
Four key departures: WR Stanley Berryhill III, C Josh McCauley, WR Tayvian Cunningham, TE Bryce Wolma
Two possible departures: OL Donovan Laie, QB Gunner Cruz
Six key returnees: QB Will Plummer, QB Jordan McCloud, WR Dorian Singer, TE Alex Lines, RB Stevie Rocker Jr., OL Josh Baker
MVP: WR Stanley Berryhill
Berryhill became the sixth Wildcat to catch 80-plus passes in a season and the first since 2012 (Austin Hill); the Tucson product also led Arizona with 865 scrimmage yards.
Most improved: QB Will Plummer
The final numbers (58.1% completion rate, 6-9 TD-INT ratio) don’t reflect it, but Plummer improved markedly over the course of the season and played his best football down the stretch.
Unsung hero: OT Paiton Fears
Fears, who has one more year of eligibility, played a team-high 915 snaps (out of a possible 917), per Pro Football Focus, and had his steadiest season as a Wildcat.
Top newcomer: WR Dorian Singer
The freshman walk-on finished third on the team with 301 receiving yards despite appearing in only five games; he also led the UA with an average of 16.7 yards per catch.
2021 report card
Although Plummer improved, and McCloud and Cruz flashed potential, the UA quarterback collective combined to throw 18 interceptions, tied for most in the nation.
Running backs: B-
The four primary backs — Michael Wiley, Drake Anderson, Jalen John and Rocker — combined for 1,090 yards but averaged only 4.0 yards per carry; Wiley led the team with six touchdowns (two rushing, four receiving).
Wide receivers: B-
Berryhill and Singer elevate the group’s grade; Boobie Curry led the WR corps with three touchdowns on only 21 receptions; veteran BJ Casteel had a disappointing season (team-high seven drops).
Tight ends: C
Arizona just didn’t get the production out of this group that Fisch sought for a variety of reasons, including quarterbacks not looking their way often enough; Lines tied for the second-most penalties (five) among offensive players.
Offensive linemen: C
While this group improved after a rough 2020, especially in pass blocking, the run blocking wasn’t where it needed to be; even after adjusting for sacks, the Wildcats averaged just 4.6 yards per carry.
Fisch and his staff never could solve Arizona’s red-zone issues (last in the nation in TD percentage); despite running the most plays in the Pac-12 entering championship weekend, the Wildcats averaged the fewest points.
The big question
Should Arizona add a starting-caliber quarterback via the NCAA transfer portal or stick with the status quo?
When you lead the country in interceptions and rank last in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, it seems like an easy answer.
Of course the Wildcats need to add more talent to their QB room.
It’s not that simple.
First of all, the top quarterbacks available on the market would have to want to come here. If they aren’t guaranteed a starting spot — a promise that would be antithetical to Fisch’s belief that competition breeds success — it might not be appealing to them. The prospect of playing behind Arizona’s offensive line might not be either.
Fisch also might feel good enough about what he has.
Although he threw five interceptions at Oregon, McCloud moved the offense. Fisch was impressed enough to name him the starter for the rest of the season. McCloud was playing a clean game the following week against UCLA before suffering a season-ending injury.
After Cruz suffered a season-ending thumb injury, Fisch had to turn back to Plummer. Plummer began the season as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cruz, then started vs. NAU — a game Arizona lost, in part, because Plummer threw a pair of interceptions.
Plummer began to turn a corner against USC. He averaged 260 yards of total offense and accounted for six touchdowns over the final five games despite a shoulder injury suffered against Cal. He posted a 4-2 TD-INT ratio over the final three games.
Whether McCloud or Plummer showed enough in relatively small sample sizes for Fisch to feel confident in them moving forward is a question only he can answer. The proof will be found on the transaction wire.
One other factor to consider is that Fisch’s pro-style offense requires a learning curve. McCloud couldn’t get to Tucson until June, and he was running behind Plummer and Cruz throughout training camp. Even Plummer, the only holdover QB on scholarship from the previous regime, said the offense didn’t truly click for him until that USC game — the eighth game of the season.
Any quarterback who’s on the market already likely would be able to enroll before spring practice. (Incoming freshman Noah Fifita will be in the mix as well.) But they’d still have to make up ground. They’d be coming here without any assurances.
Most confident, successful athletes are willing to bet on themselves. McCloud and Plummer already did, and it paid off to varying degrees.
Neither will be handed the job in 2022. But Fisch doesn’t want a repeat of ’21, when the QB situation was muddled coming out of training camp. Would adding a high-profile quarterback make things better — or just more complicated?