Arizona’s journey toward the 2021 season opener in Las Vegas has begun. And not surprisingly, the first few steps were a mix of energetic leaps and nervous stumbles.
The Wildcats held the first of 13 preseason practices on Friday morning, spending about 2 ½ hours running drills on the Dick Tomey Practice Fields and inside the Davis Sports Center.
“I like the way our team looks, they look better,” said head coach Jedd Fisch. “They look stronger than they did in the spring. We need to be better as a football team, but we’re getting better.”
It was the first chance to see more than two dozen new UA players in action including quarterback Jordan McCloud, a transfer from South Florida who will be competing for the starting job with Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer. Fisch said earlier in the week that the trio would split reps equally for the first five practices before Fisch and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty decide how to progress.
As for how those QBs, as well as three walk-ons (Luke Ashworth and newcomers Jaden White and Brayden Zermeno) performed the first day? Let’s just say it’s a good thing the opener against BYU is four weeks away.
“I thought all the quarterbacks did okay,” Fisch said. “We had too many misses. Not what we’re looking for in regards to probably completion percentage. I think we need better velocity on the ball. I think all three of them I think had a little bit of butterflies, a little bit of nervous jitters. You don’t have to win the job on the first day. All of them, I could sense were just a little bit hesitant to pull the trigger. Probably normal for the first day.”
Plummer, the only one of the trio to start a game for Arizona, felt the QBs got better as the practice went on.
“I think we finished strong,” he said. “Naturally you come out, the first day of camp everyone’s excited, it’s like Christmas morning. But once we got 30, 45 minutes into practice we were all settled down.”
Cruz and Plummer both admitted that the QB competition can be stressful at times.
“There’s a little bit of pressure because you want to be the guy, but really, pressure is a privilege,” Cruz said. “If you have the pressure on you, you have a chance to make an impact, and I’m confident myself, in my abilities and I love to play football, so I’m happy with it.”
Added Plummer: “I mean, you got to just trust your reads, go with your gut on every play and you can’t get caught up in what’s going on outside of what you can control. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”
Early camp goals
While every play is being recorded and will be reviewed ad nauseam by the coaching staff, Fisch said the first practices aren’t about being perfect and winning starting jobs. At least not exclusively.
“What I’m mostly looking for is good teammates,” he said. “Staying off the ground. Not making a dumb, cheap shot when we’re not fully protected, or ever, for that matter. Rooting one another on when the practice gets better. Seeing who’s in it for themselves and who’s in it for the team. Right now that’s kind of our evaluation, and as we progress we’ll see who’s going to be able to take that championship mentality all day, every day.”
That being said, it didn’t mean the coaches didn’t get on a player for poor performance. Defensive coordinator Don Brown was particularly fired up—and not in a good way—at numerous times during some red zone sets during when his linebackers and defensive backs struggled.
Cunningham coming on strong
Wide receiver Tayvian Cunningham has already shown off his blazing speed in games, as well as during the track and field season when he helped the UA take third in the 4x100-meter relay at the Pac-12 Championships. But after adding nearly 10 pounds of muscle, the 5-foot-10 Cunningham has a chance to be more than just a speedster.
“We put a picture up—a before-and-after picture—and it’s amazing how much stronger he’s gotten,” Fisch said. “He’s got great speed, we know that. I think he’s really buying into what we’re doing with the receiver position. He’ll play both in and out for us.”
Fisch said during Wednesday’s football Media Day that Arizona would have 118 players this season, yet the roster handed out before the first practice only has 115 names. The most notable that’s missing: wide receiver Ma’jon Wright, who twice left the program in the offseason and even spent time on Middle Tennessee’s roster but was expected to re-join the team this fall.
One name on there that wasn’t in the spring: Myles Tapusoa. The senior defensive lineman is almost unrecognizable, now listed at 290 lbs. after playing last season at 345.
All of the scholarship-player additions Arizona made in the offseason are on the roster, including linebackers Treshaun Hayward, Kenny Hebert, Malik Reed and Jerry Roberts. Roberts was the most common partner alongside senior Anthony Pandy when Arizona went with two LBs and the new Viper position.
Speaking of Viper, walk-on linebackers John Burton and Rourke Freeburg are now listed at that position along with presumptive starter Christian Young and freshman Ammon Allen.