San Diego State Football: First Look at the Arizona Wildcats
The Aztecs will head to Tucson to take on Arizona. Here’s an early preview of what to know about the rebuilding Wildcats.
Is another Pac-12 victory on the horizon for SDSU?
San Diego State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
San Diego State football has had the Pac-12’s number in recent years and, at least on paper, it seems like they’ll have a very good opportunity to prolong those winning ways when they face off with the Arizona Wildcats on September 11.
That’s because, to put it kindly, Arizona bottomed out in 2020 and cleaned house as a result. They project to be the worst team in the Pac-12 South, though don’t expect the Aztecs to take that for granted. What can they expect from the rebuilding Wildcats?
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Mascot: Wilbur and Wilma Wildcat
2020 Record: 0-5 (0-5 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Jedd Fisch (first year; 1-1 overall). Kevin Sumlin had two years in the desert to try and make good on the 7-6 team he’d inherited back in 2018, but the Wildcats backslid hard and cratered in a 70-7 Territorial Cup loss to rival Arizona State that ultimately cost him his job.
Enter Fisch, who earned the job after rumors swirled that Arizona would pursue the likes of Brent Brennan and, despite an initial perception that he wasn’t a “sexy pick”, has perked up the program’s recruiting and set himself up to weather the impending storm. After all, he’ll have to replace last year’s starters at quarterback and running back while implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball. With about a decade and a half of coaching experience at both the collegiate and NFL levels, however, Fisch should get a long while to figure things out.
DE JB Brown
Considering that Arizona’s pass rush was woeful last year (their 0.9% sack rate ranked 127th nationally), it’s safe to say they missed Brown. The senior defensive end opted out of 2020 but demonstrated at least some ability to create havoc in the two years prior, compiling 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. That may not sound like much, but these Wildcats may take what they can get.
Arizona defensive lineman JB Brown opted out of the 2020 season. He ultimately decided to stay at UA thanks to some advice from Khalil Tate.
“We’re Wildcats at the end of the day. We gotta finish what we start.” pic.twitter.com/n8unHnVxwZ
— Matt Moreno (@MattGOAZCATS) April 23, 2021
WR Stanley Berryhill
The Wildcats will have to sort out their quarterback situation in the fall, but they can at least count upon one quality target in the passing game. Though Berryhill had just 227 yards and three touchdowns on 23 catches last year, he averaged over 15 yards per catch in both 2018 and 2019, meaning that the Aztecs will need to prepare for his ability to stretch the field.
DT Trevon Mason
Having a massive human being who can clog running lanes is one way to build a defensive foundation, especially against an Aztecs team which will want to run the ball, and the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Mason might fit that bill better than anyone in the Pac-12. He was a bright spot in the Wildcats’ lost season with 20 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in five games, but if he can get back to his 2019 form (44 tackles, six TFLs), watch out.
OL Donovan Laie
Arizona’s offensive line isn’t without its questions, but Laie will have at least one spot locked down… wherever that is. Since breaking into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2018, he’s spent time at both tackle positions and at left guard, the last of which being where he spent the majority of 2020, building a reputation as a road grader who should provide a quality test of San Diego State’s strong defensive line.
Oof, where to begin? Grant Gunnell, last year’s starting quarterback, transferred to Memphis and the race to replace him appears to be wide open. Jordan McCloud transferred in from South Florida while Gunner Cruz did the same from Washington State, and those two will compete with Will Plummer to help revitalize a passing game that finished dead last in the Pac-12 by passer rating and yards per attempt.
Running back Gary Brightwell, meanwhile, got selected in the NFL Draft this spring, but how they’ll replace him is just as murky. As with the quarterback situation, transfers like Drake Anderson (Notre Dame) and youngsters like true freshmen Stevie Rocker and Jalen John could all find roles in a committee.
The situation is a little rosier at wide receiver and tight end, though. Berryhill and Bryce Wolma are the seasoned veterans, but Brightwell is the only Wildcat who caught at least ten passes that isn’t returning for 2021.
This unit got bullied early and often in 2020 to the tune of 6.74 yards per play and 3.36 points per drive allowed, which ranked a respective 118th and 121st among FBS defenses. They don’t have to replace too many pieces, however, so continuity might help them bounce back.
It’ll start up front with impact players like Brown, Mason and former New Mexico standout Aaron Blackwell, but the remade linebacker unit will have to prove it can come together. Anthony Pandy earned an all-Pac 12 honorable mention last fall, though transfers like Jerry Roberts (Bowling Green), Kenny Hebert (Vanderbilt), and Malik Reed (Wisconsin) will have to make good on their moves through the portal.
The defensive backfield has also been, surprise, revamped with transfer players after allowing 8.3 yards per attempt and intercepting just two passes last fall. Isaiah Rutherford was a former top-100 recruit for Notre Dame, while Gunner Maldonado saw a small bit of action at Northwestern before transferring. Rutherford could pair with sophomore Chris Roland-Wallace to comprise a young but promising cornerback duo, while Maldonado could line up alongside fellow young prospects like sophomore Jaxen Turner and freshman Jaydin Young to man the safety positions.
Long story short, whatever questions the Aztecs have on offense, there could be a lot of breakthrough possibilities in this matchup.
The Aztecs may not have the flashiest offense in the Mountain West, but what they plan to do should work pretty well against an Arizona team that is digging themselves out of a fairly substantial hole. On paper, chalk this one up for the road team.
San Diego State 28, Arizona 17