Five potential breakout players for the Arizona Wildcats in 2018

August 27, 2018

We know who the leading men are.

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate’s image can be found at a newsstand near you. Wildcats linebacker Colin Schooler is the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tailback J.J. Taylor was the league’s co-Offensive Freshman of the Year.

Linebacker Tony Fields II made various Freshman All-America teams. So did “Stud” Kylan Wilborn. Return specialist Shun Brown didn’t make all-conference, but he should have.

Those veterans’ roles are well-established. They’re known commodities.

Who might be next? Which Wildcats are in line for a star turn?

With Saturday’s opener against BYU fast approaching, here are our picks for Arizona’s top five breakout players of 2018. They are listed in alphabetical order.

WR Stanley Berryhill

Ht/wt/yr: 5-9, 172, redshirt freshman

2017 stats: N/A

Comment: Berryhill joined the UA football team as a walk-on. Earlier this month, the coaching staff awarded him a scholarship. He is perhaps the best example of a player taking advantage of the fresh slate Kevin Sumlin promised everyone would have when he took over as coach in January.

Berryhill made a strong early impression on the staff, catching a team-high seven passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in the spring game (all stats unofficial). The TD was a beauty. Berryhill hauled in a bubble screen, made multiple defenders miss and scooted up the left sideline for a 38-yard score.

He might not start this year, but the second-year player from Tucson is certain to be a significant part of the rotation. Berryhill’s size makes him an ideal fit for the slot, where Christian Kirk thrived in Noel Mazzone’s offense the past two seasons at Texas A&M.

RB Gary Brightwell

Ht/wt/yr: 6-1, 206, sophomore

2017 stats: 2 tackles (special teams)

Comment: Taylor led UA running backs in attempts and yards last season while sharing time with seniors Nick Wilson and Zach Green. Brightwell now steps into that co-starring role.

Like Taylor, Brightwell has an all-around game. He can run, catch and block. You have to be able to do all three to play meaningful snaps for running backs coach Clarence McKinney, who said in spring that he’s looking for “triple threats” in his backfield.

Brightwell voluntarily shifted to slot receiver as a freshman, hoping to crack the lineup. He mostly played on special teams. This year, Brightwell returns to his tailback roots.

Brightwell turned 78 carries into 519 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. Expect similar production this year for the Wildcats.

PK Lucas Havrisik

Ht/wt/yr: 6-2, 184, sophomore

2017 stats: 3-4 FG, 2-2 PAT, 67.7 touchback pct.

Comment: Havrisik made a sizable impact as a freshman kickoff specialist. Sixty-three of his 93 kickoffs reached the end zone and were not returned. Only four kickers in the country had more touchbacks.

Havrisik also became Arizona’s long-distance specialist on field goals. All four of his attempts came from 40 yards and beyond. His 57-yard field goal against Washington State tied the school record.

Havrisik battled senior Josh Pollack for the full-time placekicking job throughout the offseason. Sumlin hadn’t released a Week 1 depth chart as of this writing.

If Havrisik wins the job, he obviously will have an even bigger role than last year. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll continue to have a big impact on field position. And even though special-teams coordinator Jeremy Springer said he wanted to have one player handle all the kicking duties, it stands to reason Havrisik would be called upon for long-range field goals.

Four of Arizona’s 13 games last season were decided by three or fewer points. Having a real weapon at kicker can make a real difference.

DT PJ Johnson

Ht/wt/yr: 6-4, 335, redshirt junior

2017 stats: 17 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 FF (at City College of San Francisco)

Comment: Another player who made a quick impression on the new staff. Johnson enrolled at Arizona in January. By April, he was running with the ones.

Johnson gives the Wildcats something they haven’t had in recent years: a massive presence in the middle of their defense.

“PJ is hard to move,” UA offensive tackle Layth Friekh said.

“He’s like a mountain in there.”

Johnson isn’t just a big body. This summer he posted a video of himself dunking a basketball. He did it with ease.

In his blocker-occupying role in Marcel Yates’ defense, Johnson might not post eye-popping individual numbers. But if the linemen and linebackers around him are making plays — and if Arizona’s run defense improves as much as Yates hopes — you’ll know Johnson is doing his job.

WR Shawn Poindexter

Ht/wt/yr: 6-5, 218, redshirt senior

2017 stats: 19 catches, 294 yards, 15.5 avg., 1 TD

Comment: The only senior in this group, Poindexter is a classic late bloomer. He originally enrolled in college to play volleyball, took two years off from school, then switched to football.

Entering his third year at Arizona, Poindexter finally is ready to turn potential into production.

Poindexter has excellent size, and he’s among the best-conditioned athletes on the team. Receiver is a highly technical position, however, and it took Poindexter considerable time to learn the nuances — as well as how to use his size against smaller defensive backs.

Things started to click for Poindexter late last year. He set a career high with 53 receiving yards in the regular-season finale against Arizona State. He then had a career game in the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue, snagging five passes for 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

Poindexter followed that up with a monster spring game in which he caught six passes for a team-high 130 yards and a score and displayed much-improved chemistry with Tate.

Brown led Arizona with 43 receptions last season — 24 more than Poindexter. Don’t be surprised if he closes that gap.

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