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Arizona football notebook: Jacob Manu’s Pac-12 revenge tour, a real defensive rotation, Jedd Fisch’s ‘pitcher-catcher’ relationship with Jayden de Laura

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Arizona was the only Pac-12 school that offered Jacob Manu a scholarship. The only FBS program, actually. And just like snubbed NFL players on Draft Day, he plans to remind them of this in the best way possible.

“All these Pac-12 schools that I wanted to get recruited by, I feel like they all underlooked me,” Manu said Tuesday. “That is another chip on my shoulder to do better, and just show them that they’re wrong.”

The true freshman linebacker made his third career start in the 45-37 home loss to USC, whom he said was his dream school growing up in Orange County. The Trojans, like so many others, likely saw Manu’s lack of size—he’s generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds—as a big turn off, and understandably so.

But what he lacks in physical attributes, Manu has made up for with performance. Twenty-one of his 30 tackles have come in his three starts, including 10 at Washington and seven against USC in a career-high 80 snaps. When Arizona went with its “dollar” package of seven defensive backs, it was Manu as the lone LB rather than sixth-year senior Jerry Roberts or redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage, the player Manu replaced in the starting lineup.

“He’s growing up, he’s one of our main guys,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “He’s very vocal with with the older kids and I think they’re starting to follow his leadership, so I’m very proud of where he’s at right now.”

One of four players Arizona signed in the 2022 recruiting class from Anaheim’s Servite High School, Manu was the only one not to enroll early and participate in spring ball. He said his lack of recruitment—his only offers before the Wildcats came along last October were from two Ivy League schools—made it so he wasn’t prepared to finish high school in December like former and current teammates Keyan Burnett, Noah Fifita and Tetairoa McMillan did.

Manu didn’t arrive at the UA until June, meaning the summer was as much about getting into college shape as it was getting up to speed on the playbook.

“I feel like the playbook was probably my biggest challenge,” he said. “I feel like I got it down now, though.”

Manu said he felt he had a chance to play right away, despite the late arrival, as long as he tapped into the “Polynesian in me” that he says makes him such a great player.

“I just had to work my butt off,” he said. “Just working and just playing the way I play, being physical. Being the linebacker that every coach wants. Whoever is in front of me, like it don’t matter. I’m gonna win.”

UA quarterback Jayden de Laura saw that firsthand early this season, when Manu was still on the practice squad.

“I kind of would have to tell him to relax sometimes,” de Laura joked. “Since he came in, he’s just been grinding.”

More freshmen, more snaps

Manu was one of three true freshmen to start on defense against USC, the others being cornerback Ephesians Prysock and defensive tackle Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei. Additionally, corner Tacario Davis got his first extended look while defensive ends Russell Davis II and Jacob Kongaika also got a lot of run.

Tacario Davis was part of a seven-defensive back package called “Dollar,” one necessitated by USC regularly playing with four receivers and no tight end, and both Kongaika and Russell Davis were on the field mostly in true passing situations. This week’s opponent, No. 14 Utah, will more closely resemble North Dakota State, against whom the Wildcats went with a 4-3 base, but that shouldn’t prevent Davis and other younger guys from staying in the mix.

“There’s no doubt, you’re going to see it more and more,” Nansen said of the defensive rotation, which saw 21 guys used in the last game. “I’m looking forward to continue to develop those guys and continue to get better and build around some of those guys. The only way you’re gonna get better is by playing. And for those guys to have those quality reps versus good teams (that) we had to face in the last few weeks, it’s going to help us moving forward.”

Back in the spring and during training camp, Nansen regularly promised a deep rotation on defense in general and on the line specifically. That appears to be finally coming to fruition now that he and his assistants have grown more comfortable with playing more of the newcomers.

“That was a decision we made, that we need to play more guys and keep everybody fresh,” he said. “When you look at it, Jalen (Harris) and Hunter (Echols) are playing so much ball, and you’re asking them rush the passer. You need to be fresh in order to get those things done, so that’s the biggest thing moving forward, is trying to play more guys up front.”

Though Arizona went without a sack for the third straight game, the first time that’s happened since 2011, it did get 14 pressures on USC quarterback Caleb Williams. That’s two more than it had combined against Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. despite only blitzing only seven times (compared to 10 and nine times the previous two games).

Shake it off

After the USC loss, UA coach Jedd Fisch referred to his in-game relationship with de Laura as being like that between a pitcher and catcher in that his quarterback often “shakes me off” when he doesn’t like the initial play he calls. This is a relatively new development in their relationship, both say, but one each is glad exists.

“This (last) game was kind of like where he would allow me to do that and give me something else,” he said. “He kind of would signal in a play and I’m like, no, not that play. Then he’d signal in another one. He puts a lot of trust in me and this offense, everybody on the offense and everyone on the team, so I have to trust him back. It’s a good, healthy relationship.”

Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said it makes sense for Fisch to give de Laura that kind of freedom, considering the QB’s vantage point compared to the coaches on the sideline.

“I think Jedd’s always been a guy that can be great communicator,” Carroll said. “And knowing that the quarterback’s got the best seat in the house for seeing what’s going on, I think it’s great that those guys can play off each other.”

De Laura, who ranks fourth in FBS in passing yards per game (331.8) and tied for sixth in touchdowns (22) on Tuesday was added to the watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award. He was added to the Manning Award watch list last week.