Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series grading the Arizona Wildcats’ football recruiting classes between 2013 and ’17.
Not long after the 2015 New Mexico Bowl, which saw Arizona defeat New Mexico 45-37, Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez began overhauling his defensive staff.
The changes had dual purposes: (1) Improve the defense; and (2) upgrade recruiting.
Rodriguez recognized the need for change after seeing signs of slippage during the ’15 season. Arizona fell from 10-4 to 7-6. Recruiting classes that seemed promising did not deliver adequate production.
As Rodriguez assembled the defensive staff – hiring Marcel Yates and Donte Williams and promoting Jahmile Addae and Vince Amey – the Wildcats added several key recruits to the ’16 class in late January and early February.
Some turned out to be real difference-makers. Others did not. Such is the tale of the Arizona recruiting class of 2016.
As with each preceding group, we’ll name the best and most disappointing players from the class of ’16 and give an all-encompassing letter grade.
To create a quantitative basis for comparison, we added up the career starts for each class. In the cases of the 2016 and ’17 classes, those numbers still can grow. But, overall, they provide a relatively consistent unit of measure to determine the value of each group.
And now, onto the UA class of 2016.
247Sports: 48 (national), 9 (Pac-12)
Rivals: 51 (national), 10 (Pac-12)
Four stars: 4
Three stars: 14
Two or fewer stars: 5
(Note: We’re using 247Sports Composite Ratings for this project, and we’re including walk-ons who earned scholarships or became significant contributors.)
This is the first class in our study featuring players still on the active roster, so keep that in mind while reading this section. Entering the 2020 season – should it happen – only six of 23 players had started 12 or more games for Arizona. That mark of 26.1% ranks fourth among the five classes we reviewed. That figure could improve slightly if Jarrius Wallace starts three-plus games in the secondary, a good possibility given the Wildcats’ dearth of safeties. Nine of 23 players – 39.1% - never started a game for Arizona, the lowest (i.e., best) rate in the survey. Arizona has gotten only 180 total starts from this class, the second fewest among the five we charted. The figure should grow with Wallace and cornerback Lorenzo Burns projected to start this season. The class average of 7.8 starts per players ranks fourth.
KEY CONTRIBUTORS (CAREER STARTS)
LB Michael Barton (6), CB Lorenzo Burns (35), OL Bryson Cain (13), S Tristan Cooper (20), OL Michael Eletise (3), S Isaiah Hayes (9), QB Khalil Tate (29), RB J.J. Taylor (27), WR Shawn Poindexter (25), WR Thomas Reid III (1), S Jarrius Wallace (9)
Equally strong cases could be made for backfield mates Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor. Tate had a rollercoaster of a career at Arizona, achieving the highest highs (four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year awards in 2017) and enduring some dubious lows (sharing time over the second half of his senior year, 0-3 vs. Arizona State). Regardless, he ended his time at Arizona in the top five in school annals in yards and touchdowns, and October 2017 was unquestionably the high point for UA football over the past five seasons. Taylor was far steadier, although he had his share of spectacular moments. The short but stout running back lost three-quarters of his freshman season to injury yet still finished fifth in career rushing yards among Wildcats. Both players signed with NFL teams as undrafted free agents – Tate as a wide receiver.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER
Four-star offensive tackle Keenan Walker of Scottsdale Chaparral originally was part of the class of 2015. We reclassified him to ’16 after a knee injury led him to delay his enrollment. Either way, Walker never played a down in a UA uniform. About six months after enrolling, Walker was arrested in July 2016 on charges of assault and disorderly conduct after an incident at a Scottsdale bar. Walker did not play that season, and the following April he announced he’d be leaving the UA. Walker surfaced at Independence (Kan.) Community College, received offers from Nebraska and Fresno State but never played for either. Walker was 247Sports’ 10th-rated tackle in 2015.
UNDERDOG SUCCESS STORY
Shawn Poindexter was supposed to play volleyball in college. He had played only one year of high-level, organized football at Glendale Community College when he flipped from Marshall to Arizona. Rivals gave him only two stars. By his third and final season at the UA, Poindexter had developed into a potent downfield pass catcher. He snagged 42 passes for 759 yards and 11 touchdowns under Kevin Sumlin in 2018 and signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a priority free agent. Poindexter missed his rookie year because of a knee injury but remains on the roster. Honorable mention goes to consensus two-star safety Tristan Cooper, who recorded 123 tackles and defended nine passes in 32 games, including 20 starts.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO …
Offensive lineman Michael Eletise was, at worst, the second-highest-ranked UA signee in this class. He held offers from dozens of schools, including Alabama, Florida, LSU, Michigan and Penn State. Former UA assistants Jim Michalczik and Charlie Ragle persuaded Eletise to come to Arizona, where he quickly became a weight-room legend. But Eletise’s strength never quite translated to the field. He appeared in 23 games for the Wildcats but made only three starts. He transferred to Hawaii – his home state – after the 2018 season. Eletise appeared in 10 games for the ’19 Rainbow Warriors, including four starts. He has one more year of eligibility.
IF IT WEREN’T FOR BAD LUCK …
Offensive lineman Bryson Cain just couldn’t stay healthy. He missed the 2017 season because of a broken ankle. He missed the end of the ’18 season because of a torn ACL. Another ankle injury hobbled Cain late last season. Finally, this past offseason, he decided to walk away from the game. He made 13 career starts and would have been a valuable rotation player this season. Also worth mentioning: Defensive tackle Justin Holt took a medical retirement early in 2017 because of concussion issues after redshirting his freshman year. He resumed his playing career at Pima Community College and was supposed to play for Western New Mexico but doesn’t appear on the Mustangs’ online roster.
Adam Gorney, national recruiting analyst for Rivals and Yahoo! Sports: “When we saw Keenan Walker at the Under Armour (All-America) Game, we felt he was overmatched. We thought it was going to be a concern, and it turned out to be a concern. … Tate was a kid who in high school was so athletic and dynamic with the ball but was such a bad passer, at least through his junior year, that you were like, ‘I’m not sure he can play QB in the Pac-12.’ When the reins were put on him, I thought it was such a mistake. It was like putting the reins on Secretariat. … J.J. Taylor was a kid who was so fun to watch. In high school, he made everyone look like they were running in tar. … (Safety) Chacho Ulloa (who started one game at the UA and transferred this offseason) was a kid who made a lot of plays in high school. But looking back, his high three (rating) probably should have been dropped a bit.”
OVERALL GRADE: B-MINUS
This class had star power, if not staying power. Five players were multiyear starters, with Burns having a chance to exceed 40 career starts. But the high-profile misses – including Walker, Eletise, Ulloa, defensive end Josh Allen and linebacker Kahi Neves – bring the grade down. There weren’t as many busts as other classes, but most of them were four-star or high-three-star prospects. Another player in that group, safety Isaiah Hayes, played well here when healthy but transferred to Louisville midway through his career. As great as Tate was at times, most would view his career at Arizona as ultimately unfulfilling. The 2016 class also continued a trend of Rodriguez and his staff coming up empty, or close to it, along the defensive line.