As the calendar flipped to 2017, the Arizona Wildcats finally had something to look forward to — the first day of school.
The players — or any student, for that matter — might not be as ecstatic about the start of the spring semester. Arizona’s staff, however, sees a chance to start with a clean slate — and, following a 3-9 season, a new team.
Four-star running back Nathan Tilford moved into the dorms on Friday, which might’ve been the best news for Arizona in a tumultuous 2017 recruiting cycle.
Four others have — or will — join him: linebackers Tony Fields and Jose Ramirez, tight end Bryce Gilbert and junior college defensive lineman Sione Taufahema.
“Coming in the spring,” Ramirez said, “that gives me a better opportunity so that I can play.”
That Arizona has recruits on campus, going to class, is as much good news as anyone can expect right now. It helps that all of them have a chance to contribute right away, too.
However, this week’s good news is tempered by concerns of who isn’t on campus.
Where in the world is Braxton Burmeister?
Put the four-star quarterback in a red hat and you might as well call him Carmen Sandiego.
The La Jolla Country Day star — and the centerpiece of Arizona’s 2017 class — was supposed to be on campus by now. Instead, he’s mulling over a last-minute offer from Oregon. Speculation ran rampant over the weekend that Burmeister would flip his commitment.
Burmeister’s camp is offering few details. His parents told the Star on Saturday that he planned to move into the UA’s dorms this week. That night, sources close to the family indicated Burmeister was heading to Oregon.
By Sunday, messages to the Burmeisters went unreturned, and Scout.com reported Burmeister would choose the Ducks within hours. But the night passed without a decision, leading those close to the family to say the Burmeister-to-Oregon move was far from a certainty.
Burmeister has yet to enroll at either school.
His path to playing time is clearer at Arizona, where he would compete with Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate for the starting job. At Oregon, he’d likely sit behind Justin Herbert, who started as a true freshman last fall.
But as the Wildcats wait out Burmeister’s decision — the quarterback has already decommitted from UA once, in March, only to recommit again in May — they can still find solace in who has already arrived.
Namely, Tilford, the talented running back from Colony High School in Ontario, California, rated Arizona’s highest recruit by all the recruiting services.
Tilford told the Star last week that he had wanted to enroll early for a while, but the plan was set in motion fairly recently. Finishing up his classwork in time to come to UA early was “crazy” he said.
“I realized with the opportunity I have … just go for it,” Tilford said. “What’s the worst that could happen? You’re going to be in college, your high school season is done. So it’s just finish up and go.”
Fields and Ramirez might be even more relevant to the immediate future than Tilford, given the position they play.
Senior linebacker Cody Ippolito announced Monday that he was transferring to Utah; the same day, fellow linebacker John Kenny left the team. The departure of seniors Paul Magloire, Michael Barton and Jake Matthews leaves the Wildcats without their top five tacklers at linebacker from 2016. The only experienced returner is DeAndre’ Miller, but he comes with injury concerns. Miller played just six games last year.
Inside linebackers Josh Brown and Colin Schooler and outside linebackers Kylan Wilborn and Jalen Harris are set to join the team this summer.
By then, Fields and Ramirez will have gone through an offseason training program and spring drills.
Those are just two of the advantages of enrolling in January. Tate, safety Isaiah Hayes and linebacker Kahi Neves all enrolled early a year ago, and the first two received significant playing time in the fall.
“Since I’m coming in early, knowing they lost linebackers, it makes it better chance for me to play,” Ramirez said.
Gilbert, from Gilbert’s Higley High School, is the most likely to redshirt of the bunch, as Arizona has Trevor Wood, Brion Anduze and Jamie Nunley returning at tight end.
The Wildcats will be able to use Taufahema’s size on the defensive line right away.
Listed at 320 pounds, Taufahema, from College of the Canyons, is already Arizona’s heaviest defensive lineman.
“I think I’m prepared to come in and win a starting spot,” Taufahema said. “Just being a junior college guy going up against other Division I prospects is going to help me a lot just to come in and play right away.”
Burmeister is not in Tucson yet — or Eugene, for that matter. The rest is going according to plan.
For a moment, Arizona’s coaches can find some solace in that.
“A lot of people are asking: ‘You’re about to be in college, how do you feel?’ ” Tilford said. “It’s freaking crazy, dude.”