The Arizona Wildcats’ offseason continues to provide exciting developments, the latest being the commitment of former Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura for 2022.
De Laura, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, is the sixth transfer the UA has added since mid-December but has the capability to be the most impactful. Quarterback was a major issue for the Wildcats during Jedd Fisch’s first season, and with his background coaching that position a significant upgrade there was high on his list of offseason goals.
Combined with the signing of 3-star prospect Noah Fifita, Arizona goes into the spring with five scholarship quarterbacks after finishing the 2021 season with only one that could play. But added depth at a key position isn’t the only way de Laura impacts the UA going forward:
There’s no need to rush Fifita into action
Throughout Fisch’s first season, as he went from Gunner Cruz to Will Plummer to Jordan McCloud (and then back to Cruz and, finally, back to Plummer) as the starter, helping ease the pain of Arizona’s struggles at quarterback was the knowledge that help was on the way. Fifita, an underrated prospect that the Wildcats offered almost a year ago and who committed last April, had long been looked at as the Wildcats’ QB of the future.
But with that hope also came the realization that Arizona might end up being forced to rely on a true freshman, and all that could go wrong in such a scenario.
Now, with de Laura on board, there’s no impetus to have Fifita be the guy right away. Not that he can’t, or that he won’t someday be as good as advertised, but this way it can happen organically.
This is actually really good for Noah Fifita. Learns the speed of the game as a freshman while learning from a guy who has had success in the conference. Competes the season after. It will help him immensely.— Jason Scheer (@jasonscheer) January 11, 2022
There’s a good chance De Laura, who will be a third-year (read: draft-eligible) junior in 2022, would enter the NFL Draft if he has a good showing in the fall. That would set the stage for Fifita to take over as starter in 2023 after having a year to get comfortable with Fisch’s system.
Missing the spring all but eliminates a QB from being atop the depth chart
When Fisch announced that Cruz would be his opening-game starter, but that Plummer would also play, he noted that McCloud’s absence during spring practice—he was completing his degree at South Florida—contributed to his finishing third in the QB competition during training camp. There’s no reason to expect de Laura not to be on campus within the next few days in order to enroll for the spring semester and participate in spring ball.
The same can’t be said for Cruz, who had thumb surgery on his throwing hand in October and isn’t expected to be ready when workouts begin (likely in March). McCloud looks like he’s on track to be available after ankle surgery and knee rehab, but it’s unclear if he’ll be 100 percent.
Plummer was all sorts of banged up at the end of last season but should be a full go, while Fifita is already on campus. Spring won’t be when the job is decided, but it will probably be where some candidates are eliminated from consideration.
And with that in mind …
At least one QB will enter the transfer portal
The NCAA transfer portal, combined with the ability for all college football players to get one free move without having to sit out a year like in the past, has revolutionized the game. Arizona has definitely benefitted from this, as in 2021 it got 61 starts from players who were with different FBS programs the year before and it has secured a half-dozen more players from the portal in the past four weeks.
My unofficial count puts Arizona at 90 scholarship players, five over the limit. But that includes a slew of guys who didn’t see the field last year, many of which are from the 2021 recruiting class this staff inherited, and there’s a good chance at least a few will enter the portal.
The chances of at least one of the UA’s QBs doing the same is also high, if only because it’s almost unheard of nowadays for a power-conference program to have five scholarship passers on the roster.
Cruz would make the most sense, since he partly left Washington State a year ago because he fell behind de Laura on the depth chart. Putting himself on the market when he’s still recovering from injury might not be the best idea, so if he departs it may not be until the summer, and like McCloud he’d probably have to sit out a year since he’s already transferred once without penalty.
Plummer could play immediately if he left, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of kid that’s going to shy away from a competition, so who knows.
The next position to improve via the portal is offensive line
Donovan Laie participated in Senior Day activities in November but has a year of eligibility remaining. The deadline to declare for the 2022 NFL Draft is Jan. 17, so within the next week we should know if Laie will be part of Arizona’s plans for next season.
If he comes back it means the UA will return six offensive linemen who started at least one game in 2021, a sextet that has 96 career starts between them. Josh Baker, who started seven games at guard, is the frontrunner to replace Josh McCauley at center, while Laie, Jordan Morgan, Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears would be favored to reclaim their starting spots.
Having all that experience is great, but remember that group was also the ones blocking for an offense that ranked seventh-worst in FBS in scoring and was abysmal in the red zone.
Arizona signed three offensive linemen in the 2022 recruiting class but none figure to be shoo-ins to contribute significantly as true freshmen. There are plenty of good options in the portal, and Fisch said at his Early Signing Day press conference he had “roster freedom” to add seven to 10 more scholarship players.
Since then he’s gotten commitments from four scholarship transfers and signed two more prep players, so if the Wildcats are going to bring in anyone else they should be to boost the O-line.