Jordan Paopao’s main mission at Arizona: Help turn Wildcat tight ends into pros

Tight end Alex Lines played for Jordan Paopao at UNLV. Now, both are Wildcats.

Michael Lev Arizona Daily Star

Bryce Wolma never knew it could be like this.

Arizona’s fifth-year tight end has a coach devoted to his position. The Wildcats have a legitimate tight end room – not just a duo or a trio.

“The past three years, I didn’t have a designated tight ends coach,” Wolma said. “Now having one … I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s awesome to feel important and feel like the tight end is a valued position in our offense — and it really is.”

The man in charge of the position that’s vital in Jedd Fisch’s system is Jordan Paopao, a former college center who apprenticed under Jim Harbaugh and Chris Petersen.

Under Peterson at Washington, Paopao helped develop NFL-bound tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Will Dissly and Drew Sample. After spending last season at UNLV, Paopao came to Tucson to try to do the same for the UA.

“That was the first thing we talked about on the phone,” Wolma said. “He’s been a great mentor for all of us, on and off the field. … He’s preparing us to be NFL tight ends.”

Paopao is one of Arizona’s most important recruiters, and he isn’t averse to name-dropping Arizona’s most famous tight end alum — Rob Gronkowski. Paopao also started “Jumpman Friday,” a social media campaign in which he and his fellow coaches show off their Jordans and Nike footwear.

“Anytime that you’re recruiting, you’re either memorable or forgettable,” Paopao said. “It’s something that stands out and grabs a little bit of attention.”

Paopao had the media’s attention when he spoke after Thursday’s practice. Below is a portion of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

You have two distinct tight end positions, the “Y” and the “F.” Who’s playing what so far in spring?

A:“You have probably seen about 15 different combinations of tight ends, just to be able to see the skill set. Those guys are doing an awesome job. Because we’re asking them to play both of those positions … to see and get a great feel personnel-wise of who we’ve got.”

What are the attributes each position needs to have?

A: “The Y, generally speaking, is going to be a guy that you really want to set the edge and be that big, physical presence, be able to cut off defensive ends. And then the F is, generally speaking, going to be more of your pass-catching receiver that you’re going to put on the move. But … you have to be able to do both. And the more that you can do, the more time that you’re going to spend on the football field.”

Alex Lines played for you at UNLV. Now he’s here. What does he bring to the room?

A: “He gets the expectation of what it should look like on a daily basis. Simple things like studying the game. The buzzwords that I’m trying to bring to these guys to be able to get them to play faster. That is the biggest key. How do I get these guys … to see the game like a coach would and be able to dissect things both pre-snap and post-snap?

“Alex is at a great spot because he’s been able to see that for about a year now, and I think having him in the room, the way that he presents himself, the way he studies the game, the way that he answers questions, is contagious. I think a lot of the guys around him are starting to catch wind of the expectation.”

What is your sense of your group’s comfort level with the offense at this point?

A: “Every day is just a work in progress. We’re trying to be able to push and create yards however we can. Those guys have done a phenomenal job with everything that we’re asking them to do, formationally, motions, cadence. It’s a lot like being a quarterback. You have to have a firm grasp on the offense as a whole.

“Those guys have attacked it every single day. They’ve gotten better every single day, and you’re starting to see a lot of those fruits come into play in terms of production.”

How important is it to have a guy like Gronk come back for the spring game and be around the program?

A: “You can’t have a better example of what you can do by playing tight end at this university. You look at the success that he has had at the next level, the production that he’s had over the years, and then just the visibility is unbelievable.”

How often do you bring him up when you’re recruiting?

A: “Every chance that I can. I literally try to (gauge) myself about how many times I can mention his name.”

We haven’t seen second-year freshman Roberto Miranda in team drills because of his knee rehab, but we have seen him out here running after practice. What could the future hold for him?

A: “I think it’s really exciting. The game is very new to Roberto (who’s from Germany), but his work ethic is unbelievable — his hunger to get in meetings, spend extra time in my office. I just really am excited to see him operate at full speed here very shortly, because I feel like we’re really close to that.”

Extra points

  • Fisch on freshman RB Stevie Rocker Jr., who had several strong runs and made an acrobatic sideline catch Thursday: “I couldn’t be more impressed with Stevie Rocker. The guy should really be getting ready for his prom, if they’re having those this year, and graduation. He’s not 18 yet. He turns 18 In May. So the fact that he’s not even 18 yet, and the fact that he’s playing like he’s playing and participating in every practice, every opportunity to get better, you can’t ask for more. There’s a ton of upside there, and I think we’re just scratching the surface.”
  • After struggling for a good chunk of practice, the offense found a rhythm late, especially on the ground. Multiple running backs were able to break into the clear.
  • QB Will Plummer followed that same pattern, as he started to look more comfortable late in practice. But he was victimized on a sideline throw by cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, who undercut the pass for an interception.
  • Gunner Cruz’s best pass of the day came on a deep crossing route to Brian Casteel, who extended to snag the ball on the run.
  • Offensive lineman Donovan Laie and tailback Michael Wiley returned to limited duty after missing the past several practices. Both worked with the first-team offense during the walk-through phase.
  • Safety Isaiah Mays, who has been limited, played with the second-team defense during 11-on-11 drills during the non-tackling, no-pads workout.
  • Defensive tackle Trevon Mason was among the players who did not participate.
  • Members of the UA softball and women’s basketball teams attended practice. They included Dejah Mulipola (softball) and Sam Thomas and Madison Conner (basketball).
  • Steve Kerr and Pete Carroll spoke to the team via Zoom on Wednesday.
  • The Wildcats are set to hold their first full-scale spring scrimmage at 11 a.m. Saturday at Arizona Stadium. It’s open to the first 1,500 fans.