In his first press conference in January, Jayden de Laura identified several reasons why he chose Arizona after entering the NCAA transfer portal. But there was at least one other motive, and it happens to be next on the schedule.
“This offseason, I kind of was looking for an opportunity to play them again, and that opportunity presents itself this upcoming week,” de Laura said of Washington State, where he started 15 games in 2020-21 and was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year last season. “At the end of the day, it’s just another opponent.”
De Laura’s comments Tuesday about WSU were far more measured than those late Saturday, in the wake of Arizona’s shocking upset win at then-No. 9 UCLA. “Just watch,” he began, later adding “it’s personal.”
UA coach Jedd Fiscb said Monday he hoped Saturday’s contest could be “just another game” for everyone on the team but admitted that wasn’t likely to be the case for de Laura. He also said it was de Laura’s job to keep his feelings about the opponent from impacting his preparation or play, something offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll echoed on Tuesday.
Being able to keep alive Arizona’s hopes for bowl eligibility should carry more weight than past history with the Cougars, he said.
“This is another championship opportunity,” said Caroll, who sent many of his players Kobe Bryant’s famous ‘job’s not finished’ meme after the UCLA win. “We’re in the playoffs right now in our mind, to keep playing games you got to keep winning. You’re in a playoff run right now. We put ourselves in position to have a chance to play one more game than is on the schedule. We got a great opportunity to play a really tough team this weekend, and it’s a great challenge for us. And I think that’s enough. That’s enough for our guys to get excited for and to keep our focus.”
This isn’t the first time this season one of Arizona’s main contributors will be facing their previous school. Defensive end Hunter Echols did so a few weeks back against USC, and UA safety Christian Young said it was evident that game meant more than others.
“It definitely wasn’t just another opponent for him,” Young said. “Obviously he’s playing his alma mater, somewhere he graduated from, so it was kind of heavy on his chest that week. It was just one of those games that you just prepare for and are very locked in the whole week.”
Next left tackle up
The loss of junior Jordan Morgan for the remainder of the season, reportedly due to a torn ACL suffered against UCLA, means Arizona will be starting someone different at left tackle for the first time since the 2021 opener.
While losing Morgan, Arizona’s highest-graded offensive player (per Pro Football Focus) and a potential future NFL offensive lineman, is a big blow, the saving grace is that his replacement isn’t coming in cold. Redshirt junior Sam Langi, who replaced Morgan against UCLA and played the final 49 offensive snaps, has been a regular contributor on the line all season.
Langi started at left guard against USC, and prior to that was splitting reps at that position with Josh Donovan. He’d also rotated at right tackle with Paiton Fears.
“He played pretty well going in a substitute role,” Carroll said of Langi. A couple of times there was a couple of mental errors in there, we gotta them cleaned up, but for the most part held his own. Had a couple of really nice blocks. And he’s been great all year. We’re lucky to have a guy that’s had experience that will step into this role. We expect a ton out of him.”
As for Langi’s backup, Carroll said Donovan—who has been supplanted at left guard by freshman Wendell Moe—can “kick out” to tackle if needed, while junior college transfer Joe Borjon (who hasn’t played) is another option.
Full-season film study
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen called arguably his best game against UCLA, resulting in the Bruins scoring their fewest points all season and Arizona allowing under 30 for the first time since Oct. 1. The Wildcats also had three sacks and seven tackles for loss, both season highs.
And while it looked from the outside like Nansen had added some new wrinkles, such as bringing more pressure from defensive backs, he said it was just the opposite.
“We just kept it simple for our guys to play fast,” he said. “I thought the difference in the game was they were able to execute, they knew exactly what was coming.”
Nansen said scouting UCLA was difficult because Bruins coach Chip Kelly uses so many different looks on offense. He and Carroll said most time is spent looking at film from the previous four games but all games have to be scouted to find tendencies and plays that could get used.
Washington State provides fewer looks, Nansen said. Also, the past two games the Cougars have leaned much more on the run, particularly junior Nakia Watson, who has gained 282 yards with four touchdowns in the past two contests to balance out what is still an Air Raid attack.
“They’re still running the football, so we’re prepared for it,” Nansen said. “They throw the ball a lot when they get their open formations.”
- Carroll said he and other UA coaches will meet with Morgan later this week to discuss his future in the wake of his season-ending injury. Morgan was expected to declare for th 2023 NFL Draft and would have likely been Arizona’s first offensive lineman picked since 2009, but with surgery likely in his future it may mean returning to school for another season.
“We’ll have a bunch of information for him,” Caroll said.
- Quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty is one of 51 candidates for the Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant coach. Carroll said Dougherty has been a great mentor to de Laura as he’s transitioned to Arizona’s pro-style offense.
“Jayden hadn’t been under center, I don’t think, his whole high school or college career,” Carroll said.
- One thing Dougherty, or any other coach for that matter, is able to help de Laura with is his knack for sensing pass rushers on his blind side. UCLA’s Kelly commented after Saturday’s game that he’s never faced another QB that’s been so good at eluding defenders.
Asked how he does it, de Laura said he might just have a sixth sense.
“Sometimes I go back and watch the film and I’m like, how did I get out of these tackles?,” he said. “It’s just kind of like playing backyard football, just trying not to get tagged.”