There is no reason Arizona should be one of the worst Power 5 programs in college football.
It has a beautiful campus, cool uniforms, recently renovated facilities and it’s located in a fertile recruiting territory with easy access to Phoenix and Southern California.
As you look through Arizona’s history, you’ll see the Wildcats have done some good things with high-level national recruiting. You’ll see it’s possible for Arizona to consistently compete in the Pac-12. But, for whatever reason, the Wildcats have failed to do that for most of the past decade.
It all begins and ends with players. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the highs and lows of Arizona recruiting over the years.
Best recruit, pre-internet rankings: Tedy Bruschi, DE
Who knows what Bruschi would have been rated had his high school career occurred during the internet rankings era, but one thing is for sure: He’s one of the best football players to ever come out of the Sacramento, Calif., area.
“He’s the most dominant player without the ball that I have seen in 25 years covering area high schools,” longtime Sacramento Bee reporter Joe Davidson said.
Bruschi’s only scholarship offers, though, were from BYU, Washington State, San Jose State and Arizona because he was undersized, at 6 feet 1, to play on the defensive line.
BYU wanted him to play linebacker. Arizona simply wanted him as a football player.
Bruschi’s work ethic became evident the minute he arrived in Tucson in 1991.
“The thing with Tedy and a lot of football players is you can’t measure their heart and desire,” Tomey told The Arizona Daily Star’s Greg Hansen in 2013 when Bruschi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. “The year we recruited Tedy, we brought 63 players to campus. You just wondered if he could play as hard, as often, at this level as he did in high school. He did. He had such great ball awareness. You can’t teach that.”
That’s why Bruschi was the face of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” era, which is what current head coach Jedd Fisch is trying to replicate in Tucson. Bruschi was a two-time All-American and the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1995. He was a third-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft before embarking on a 12-year Pro Bowl career with the New England Patriots, with whom he won three Super Bowl rings.
Best recruit, modern era: Tetairoa McMillan, WR
Some outstanding recruits have come through Arizona. Cornerbacks Devin Ross and Robert Golden, running back Mike Bell and quarterback Willie Tuitama, to name a few.
But could the best recruit of the modern era be a player who has been at Arizona for only one season? Yes.
McMillan signed with Arizona’s 2022 class as the No. 51 overall player in the 247Sports Composite — the highest ranking by any Wildcats signee in program history.
McMillan was originally committed to Oregon but flipped to Arizona after Mario Cristobal left Eugene for Miami. McMillan chose the Wildcats over offers from Florida, LSU, Miami, Oklahoma, Texas, USC and many others.
Not only was his signing a legitimizing success for the Fisch tenure, but the 6-foot-4, 185-pound receiver also quickly proved he was worth the hype. McMillan led all true freshmen nationally in 2022 with 39 receptions for 702 yards and eight touchdowns.
Most influential recruit: Rob Gronkowski, TE
You could make the case that Gronkowski is also the best recruit in program history, but there’s no question he’s the most influential player to ever wear a Wildcats uniform.
Maybe that’s because Gronkowski is now a future NFL Hall of Famer. Or maybe it’s because everyone who went to college with him has a funny party story about him. Or maybe it’s because he was good at football.
A four-star prospect who played for Woodland Hills High in Pittsburgh, Gronkowski was ranked No. 192 overall by Rivals in the Class of 2007 and had 40-plus scholarship offers. He was a Pennsylvania prospect who took an official visit to Ohio State. You might be asking, “How the heck did Arizona get him?”
Arizona promised him a good time, on and off the field. Gronkowski’s size had some programs envisioning him as an offensive lineman. The Wildcats told him they’d throw him the ball and he’d have a chance to compete early.
“We got our foot in the door with him, and he came out to campus,” former Arizona assistant Tim Kish told Bleacher Report in 2015. “I think Rob looked around the university and saw it was a beautiful situation with great weather. He knew we were throwing the ball all over the place at the time and that he’d have an opportunity to compete to play right away.”
The rest was history. Gronkowski combined to catch 75 passes for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons (2007, 2008) before missing his junior (and final) season at Arizona after undergoing back surgery.
He was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft — the back injury hurt his stock — and he went on to become perhaps the best tight end in the history of the NFL.
Biggest bust: Nick Costa, QB
Costa, a four-star prospect from Beaverton, Ore., is the program’s highest-ranked quarterback signee in the modern era.
He started three games as a third-year sophomore in 2003 before losing his job to Kris Heavner. Costa bounced between quarterback and receiver before quitting the team in 2004.
Best developmental story: Antoine Cason, CB
Cason might be viewed as a bust professionally because of his relative struggles in the NFL after being selected in the first round in 2008 by the Chargers.
But anyone who saw him play at Arizona knows he was an elite cornerback in college. A three-star prospect who was ranked No. 460 overall in the 2004 class out of Los Alamitos (Calif.) High, Cason chose the Wildcats over offers from Boise State and Oregon State.
Cason, who also ran track and field for the Wildcats, was dominant as a senior in 2007, both as a cornerback and kick returner. He finished the season with five interceptions and four touchdown returns, two on INTs and two on special teams.
He won the Thorpe Award and earned first-team All-America honors as a senior.
The one who got away: Jalen Tabor, CB
Arizona is one of the few Power 5 programs that has never signed a five-star prospect. The Wildcats were close in the 2014 class.
Jalen “Teez” Tabor of Washington (D.C.) Friendship Academy announced his commitment to Arizona while at the Under Armour All-America Game. It came as a surprise after he took official visits to Florida and Alabama. Jonathan Haden, his high school teammate and the younger brother of former Gators cornerback Joe Haden, was committed to the Wildcats.
Arizona doesn’t typically win that battle. Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats coach at the time, looked like a hero. That lasted seven days.
A week later, Tabor flipped his commitment to Florida and ultimately signed with the Gators. Tabor looked up to Joe Haden and wore the same No. 5 for part of his career at Florida.
He became a second-round pick in the 2017 draft.
(Top photo of Rob Gronkowski and Jedd Fisch: Christopher Hook / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)