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Tetairoa McMillan is a unicorn in an Arizona Wildcats uniform

Anthony Gimino Avatar
September 17, 2023
Arizona's Tetairoa McMillan was makes a catch against the UTEP Miners.

Over the years, starting in 1991, there have been three Arizona Wildcats football players that just looked different to me. You didn’t need to have played football to spot it. You just took one look and knew.

The first time it happened with 1991. I was covering my very first Arizona practice, so everything was new. What did I know? But there was this one guy, even while working in a talented running back group, who fit the description of “one of these things is not like the other.”

With his size, fluidity, build – just the way he picked up his feet and put them down in drills – it was clear Chuck Levy was special. And he was. Maybe he didn’t get used to full potential with the Wildcats, but in our minds he will forever be running away from Miami defenders in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl

The second bolt of lightning was at 1996 Camp Cochise in Douglas. While the team practiced one day, Arizona’s compliance director Bill Morgan was walking across the parking lot to the practice field with a kid who was working through eligibility issues. The young man was tall, lean and angular, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I turned to Sports Information Director Tom Duddleston and asked, “Who’s that guy?”

“Oh, that’s Chris McAlister,” Duddleston said.

Of course, we had heard of C-Mac. One of the top recruits in the West who had to spend a year in junior college after the NCAA flagged his SAT score after he signed with UCLA. But this was the first time laying eyes on him. You knew.

“That dude can play,” I told Duddleston, stating the obvious.

The third time it happened came with another hyped recruit – Rob Gronkowski – before the team’s first practice of 2007 fall camp, held near campus at the Rincon Vista Complex. Leading up to camp, coach Mike Stoops referred to Gronkowski as a “monster.” Quarterback Willie Tuitama called him a “beast.”

They weren’t wrong.

I wrote at the time: “Beast or monster, I half expected Gronkowski to enter the practice field to the blare of trumpets, emerging from behind a veil of smoke. Either that, or maybe he would descend from storm clouds, throwing thunderbolts to the turf with his right arm and crushing a football with his left.”

As it was, he merely stepped off the bus, all chiseled at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. It was real. And it was spectacular. We know how his story ends.

And now … Tetairoa McMillan

This is all a long way – a very long way … and thank you for your indulgence – to start talking about Arizona sophomore receiver Tetairoa McMillan.

This dude is different.

I didn’t have a chance to have that “love at first sight” moment with T-Mac as I did with Levy, McAlister and Gronkowski, but let’s put him in that class. A 6-5 five-star receiver, with fluid movement, enough speed, pogo-stick jumping ability and Venus flytrap hands.

The Wildcats have had a plenty of excellent receivers over the years, but not one that checks all those boxes. Not one that, this early in his career, could project as a first-round pick. Not one that does things like this play from Saturday night’s win 31-10 over UTEP … and it’s so routine for him that the head coach merely shrugs.

“I’ve seen it a lot at this point,” coach Jedd Fisch said after the game when asked about the catch. He paused, as if that answer would suffice, before being prodded to continue.

“That one is not going to do it for me. I’m going to see a lot of those over the next few years. And I’ve seen a lot of them. He’s super gifted.”

Well, Fisch will be seeing a lot of those SportsCenter Top 10 highlights for the next nine (maybe 10?) games of this season and all of next season. After that, unless something weird happens, Fisch and the rest of us will have to be tuning in on Sundays to watch T-Mac.

He did lose a fumble against the Miners but made up for it by scoring on an 18-yard reception off a screen pass and finishing with six catches for 89 yards. He has 11 touchdown catches in 15 career games, including three in three this season.

Quarterback Jayden de Laura also was asked about the catch in the postgame press conference.

“That’s an everyday thing,” de Laura said. “He can pick up any sport and dominate. Bowling? Yes. You’re not beating him in bowling. Basketball, volleyball … it’s ridiculous. It’s just a credit to his hard work.”

With McMillan and senior Jacob Cowing – whose acceleration is perhaps the best I’ve seen at Arizona – the Wildcats have one of the best duos in college football. Certainly, it’s UA’s best one-two punch at receiver since Dennis Northcutt and Jeremy McDaniel in 1998.

McMillan caught 39 passes for 702 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman, so none of what he’s doing – or will be doing – should be a big surprise. Other than to the Biletnikoff Award committee who left T-Mac off a 49-player (!) preseason watch list.

*Side note: At Lindy’s, we rated Cowing ninth and McMillan 18th in a preseason All-America checklist for receivers.

“We know what kind of football player he is,” Fisch said.

That’s right, Coach.

While we can, let’s appreciate the unicorn in an Arizona uniform.

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