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What we learned about Arizona during spring football practice

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arizona-wildcats-spring-football-practice-recap-takeaways-highlights-insights-fisch-pac12-2021 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats just wrapped up their first spring under Jedd Fisch, conducting 15 practices over five weeks including Saturday’s Spring Game inside Arizona Stadium.

The team now moves into summer workout mode, which Fisch has referred to as the third quarter of Arizona’s preparation for the 2021 season.

Here’s a look at some things we’ve learned about the Wildcats, Fisch and the program during spring ball:

Jordan McCloud can’t get here soon enough

If Fisch had to name his starter based on spring ball, Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz would probably get the nod over Will Plummer, but maybe only be default. Neither did much to prove they deserved the job more than the other, nor did they add anything to the learning curve McCloud will face when he arrives from South Florida in June.

McCloud, who was in Tucson over the weekend and attended the Spring Game, started 17 games for the Bulls the previous two seasons. His experience alone gives him a leg up on Cruz and McCloud, who combined have appeared in four college games, but he’s coming from a system where he probably ran a lot more than he will with Arizona.

It’s by no means a certainty that McCloud will win the starting job, but at least it gives Fisch and passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty another option for the critical position.

“Get ready for a war,” Fisch said, when asked what his message to the QBs was. “They’re going to compete and if they want to be the starting quarterback here in September, then they better be ready to compete. I hope they’re ready for a lot of battles to see who’s gonna come out on top in September.”

The defense will make a lot of plays, but still needs a lot more guys

The defenses produced four sacks in the Spring Game, and that was without any blitzing, likely much to the chagrin of “Dr. Blitz” Don Brown.

There was plenty of pressure put on Arizona’s offensive linemen and quarterbacks during practices, and the defenders seem to be taking very well to Brown’s style. And it figures to produce plenty of big plays in the fall, but the likelihood of it giving up big ones as well remains.

That’s because there are very few positions on defense, if any, where Arizona isn’t sorely lacking in depth. Things will get a little better with the summer arrivals, particularly at linebacker thanks to incoming MAC veterans Treyshaun Howard and Jerry Roberts, but the Wildcats still need a lot more.

Cornerback is a particularly thin spot, considering Brown likes to blitz from that position. Incoming freshman Jakelyn Morgan almost immediately moves up to third or fourth on the depth chart when he arrives, depending on if he can supplant Malik Hausman at nickel corner or sticks to backing up either Christian Roland-Wallace or Isaiah Rutherford. But who backs up the other?

Brown intimated a week ago Arizona was trying to add another defensive lineman, which will certainly help, but it could use reinforcements at several other positions. As it stands, though, the Wildcats only have one scholarship to give toward a new player.

The offensive line is experienced, but it was last year as well

Of the 13 scholarship offensive linemen Arizona had in spring ball, nine have played in a game for the Wildcats and six have combined for 81 career starts. But 19 of those starts came last year when the line yielded 18 sacks in five games and everyone seemed to regress.

Brennan Carroll is the third or fourth line coach for guys like Josh McCauley and Donovan Laie, and so far his unit is looking like one that’s once again starting from scratch. With Arizona using a pro-style scheme and going under center a good amount of time, how the line holds up—or if it does—will play a huge role in any sort of offensive success.

Freshmen Josh Baker, JT Hand and Woody Jean all show promise, and Carroll has been mixing and matching to cross-train guys at different positions.

The only scholarship addition to the O-line this summer is Luke Eckardt, a former Northern Illinois commit who is ranked outside the top 2,000 in the 2021 recruiting class according to 247Sports.

Stevie Rocker Jr. has huge upside if he can stay healthy

One of two prep early enrollees, along with Hand, Rocker had maybe the most impressive spring of any Wildcat. The running back from Oro Valley’s Canyon del Oro High School, the same place Arizona got Ka’Deem Carey, showed great speed and burst, often breaking off long runs in practices and scrimmages.

Rocker benefitted from both Michael Wiley and Jalen John being limited during the spring, splitting a lot of first-team reps with Northwestern transfer Drake Anderson. Not bad for someone that Fisch said after the Spring Game should be going to his Senior prom that weekend.

Now the key for Rocker is to remain healthy.

Injuries prevented him from ever playing a full high school season, with his senior campaign severely limited by Pima County’s stringent COVID protocols. At 6 feet and 192 pounds he’s not small, but if he can continue to gain strength during the summer he has a legitimate shot to be a key part of the backfield.

The force is strong with this one

The onfield product is ultimately going to be the deciding factor, but to this point the Fisch hire looks like a home run. The turnout for Saturday’s spring game only furthered this notion, with roughly 5,000 people opting to spend a couple hours in the sun watching a glorified scrimmage.

It being the first opportunity for Arizona fans to check out a “game” inside Arizona Stadium for the first time in nearly a year and a half probably factored into some of that crowd, but most was the product of a significant increase in buzz and interest in this program.

Pandemic fatigue had nothing to do with the large contingent of former players who either attended the Spring Game or came by a practice.

“Those are great signs, because alumni have instincts,” senior advisor Tedy Bruschi said. “You get instincts about coaches and feelings about them and what they’re like. Jedd’s done such a great job of being proactive and welcoming guys. Word gets out, and alumni want to come see for themselves, and when the alumni want to come see for themselves it’s a great sign.”