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Arizona football notebook: On split-squad practices, gray jerseys and an official name change

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Colorado v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Arizona’s split-squad practices now have an origin story.

For the second consecutive practice day the Wildcats broke their squad in two, with half the team going for three hours on Wednesday morning and the other half doing the same that evening. In between every player took part in a one-hour walkthrough, enabling everyone to get their maximum four hours of field time.

Meanwhile, the coaches spent seven total hours either on the Dick Tomey Practice Fields or inside the Davis Sports Center.

“The players, they’re really doing a heck of a job learning, getting better, improving,” head coach Jedd Fisch said following the evening practice. “I think they’re benefitting from being able to be in their own little groups and to get a lot of reps. I think it’s a benefit to the young players and the young coaches. You’ve got graduate assistants that are running meetings. The O-line was run by Luke McNitt while Coach (Brennan) Carroll was in meetings. Same thing with wide receivers, same things with safeties, and corners this morning. You see that opportunity for the coaches to grow and feel more confident and the young players get a huge benefit because it’s so much more individualized.”

Fisch said the split-squad idea came from his time with both the Baltimore Ravens, as an offensive assistant under Brian Billick from 2004-07, and even before that when he was a defensive quality control coach under Houston Texans head coach Dom Capers in 2002-03. Two-a-days are allowed in the NFL, and he said those coaches would structure their practices based on which younger players needed more work and which veterans needed a break from the rigors of training camp.

“Sometimes it was a lighter load for the Ray Lewises and Ed Reeds and Haloti Ngatas of the world, while the younger guys are developing,” Fisch said. “The way the college model works you can’t really do that anymore.”

Wednesday’s late practice was mostly comprised of younger players, though veteran receivers BJ Casteel and Thomas Reid III were out there as was quarterback Will Plummer. Fisch said Plummer was selected to work alongside freshman walk-on passers Jaden White and Brayden Zermeno because he was the youngest of the scholarship QBs, while Jordan McCloud was part of that group on Monday because he was “the youngest with us,” Fisch said.

Casteel, in his fifth season with Arizona, considered it beneficial to be able to work with some of the younger receivers both as a way to mentor them and see how they’re doing getting more touches.

“There’s less guys out here, so obviously you get more reps,” he said. “Being able to go out there and not worry about splitting reps.”

One such guy making the most of the situation: freshman linebacker Kolbe Cage, who was unblockable during one-on-one drills against some of the running backs and was awarded by Fisch as the player to break down the team after practice.

Fisch said he may do the split squads once or twice more, with Gunner Cruz being the scholarship QB that goes with the younger group next time. The window to do those split practices is closing, though, since they can’t happen once the fall semester begins Aug. 23.

The gray jersey, explained

Arizona’s offensive players wear blue jerseys in practice except for the quarterbacks, who wear red, while the Wildcat defenders are in white.

However, each day in preseason camp a different player has donned a special gray jersey.

The reason isn’t based on performance, but rather the calendar. The number of the player wearing the jersey signifies how many days until the UA’s 2021 opener Sept. 4 against BYU in Las Vegas.

Linebacker Treshaun Hayward (No. 24) wore a gray jersey during Wednesday’s morning practice, while Thursday night it will be Stevie Rocker Jr. (No. 23) in gray.

A potential problem is on the horizon, though: There isn’t a No. 22 on the roster—and Arizona is set to practice Friday morning on what would be 22 days out from the opener.

“I might have to wear 22,” Fisch joked.

Don’t call me Brian (anymore)

After four years being listed on the roster, and in all official channels, by his first name, for the 2021 season and beyond the wide receiver who led Arizona in catches in 2020 will be known as BJ Casteel. The BJ stands for “Brian Junior,” he said

“Ever since I was a young kid, my mother actually gave me the nickname BJ,” said Casteel, who had always gone by that with his friends. “It really wasn’t a big deal to me. Inside the locker room, people that are close to me, they know me as BJ. Now I decided to open it up and go with it.”