Three months to the day it hired Jedd Fisch to rebuild the program, the Arizona Wildcats hit the field for the first time as a team for the start of spring practice.
The UA will have 15 workouts over the next five weeks, going every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning, with the Spring Game set for 12 p.m. PT on April 24. Fisch confirmed last week that practices would be open to the public, and on Monday the school announced that there’s room for up to 200 visitors.
Here’s what to look for when the UA gets going on the Dick Tomey Practice Fields and within the Cole and Jeanie Davis Sports Center:
The personal touches
Unless you haven’t paid attention—and don’t have social media—you’re well aware that #ItsPersonal is Arizona’s 2021 mantra. Almost every assistant coach used that phrase at least once when speaking with reporters in January, and the slogan is plastered all over the UA’s social accounts.
But how will that look, well, in person?
Spring ball will mark the first time Arizona’s entirely new coaching staff gets to work hands on with the roster. To this point it’s been all meetings, with only strength and conditioning coordinator Tyler Owens being able to see what the players are capable of. Fisch said last week that team has “adapted extremely well” to the new strength program and that they’ve been “eager to learn” via meetings.
Now comes the real work, and just as importantly, how the coaches and players interact with each other.
Fisch, passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll will be implementing a completely new scheme on that side of the ball, as will defensive coordinator Don Brown. Brown, known as “Dr. Blitz” for his pressure-heavy approach at Michigan, Boston College, Connecticut and Maryland, figures to spend a good part of spring ball getting his players to buy into his high-risk, high-reward scheme.
Who’s here, who’s not?
The spring roster includes 91 players, with Fisch saying another 20 to 25 will arrive in June. Several of Arizona’s 10 transfers are here for the spring, as are two freshmen and a junior college transfer from the 18-member 2021 signing class.
There are also nine “super seniors,” players who would have exhausted their eligibility last fall had the NCAA not granted everyone an extra year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This group is most noticeable on the defensive line, where the Wildcats return Aaron Blackwell, JB Brown and Trevon Mason, with Brown back after opting out of the 2020 season.
While 15 members of last year’s squad previously announced their departure, either to the NCAA transfer portal or the the NFL Draft, several other 2020 players aren’t on the spring roster. Missing are senior defensive linemen Jalen Cochran and Myles Tapusoa, redshirt junior running back Nathan Tilford, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Adams, sophomore linebacker Derion Clark, sophomore cornerback Bobby Wolfe and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kwabena Watson.
All told, the spring roster includes 32 scholarship or walk-on players who have combined to make 254 starts for the Wildcats.
Early position battles
While there are 10 UA players who have started more than 10 games at the school, it stands to reason that all starting jobs are up for grabs under the new regime. That means there will be competition for reps all over the field.
The most important of those battles, no doubt, is at quarterback, where freshman Will Plummer is the only player on the roster who has started a game for the UA.
Plummer and redshirt sophomore Kevin Doyle (who has yet to appear in a game in three years with the program) will be joined in the spring with Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz and ex-Oregon State/Eastern Washington passer Nick Moore, the younger brother of former Beavers and NFL QB Matt Moore. Jordan McCloud, a transfer from South Florida, and incoming freshman Brayden Zermeno won’t arrive until June, so no decision on who starts Sept. 3 against BYU in Las Vegas will be made anytime soon.
Arizona returns three starters on the offensive line, but that unit massively disappointed a year ago, so Carroll will need to tap into his experience with the Seattle Seahawks to come up with a way to shore up that group. And while tight ends coach Jordan Paopao has Bryce Wolma at his disposal, the senior has been ignored since his freshman season and one of Paopao’s recruits at UNLV (Alex Lines) is here for spring ball.
On the defensive side, the switch to a 4-3 means seeing how Jalen Harris fares moving back to the edge after playing linebacker in 2020, while also seeing how Brown’s linebacker/safety hybrid VIPER position pans out. And Arizona’s corners are going to get a workout being asked to blitz on some plays and defend on an island on others.