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What to watch for during Arizona football’s Spring Game

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-game-preview-quarterbacks-receivers-defense-red-zone-2022-pac12 Arizona Athletics

Arizona wraps up its second year of spring practice under Jedd Fisch on Saturday with a scrimmage inside Arizona Stadium. The game, which will be aired on the Pac-12 Network, is set to begin at 12 p.m. PT.

The Wildcats will be split into Red and Blue teams, with each having a former UA player as its honorary head coach (Tedy Bruschi for Blue, Lance Briggs for Red) as well as a notable non-football assistant coach (Mike Candrea and Adia Barnes, respectively). The rest of Fisch’s staff is spread evenly between the teams, as will the players.

Here’s what to look for during the Spring Game:

Freelancing de Laura?

Jayden de Laura threw a shovel pass for the final touchdown of Arizona’s practice on Tuesday, a possible nod to when he was asked after the Saturday scrimmage if he had that in his toolkit. He also brought up the possibility of throwing left-handed, part of the leeway he said he’s been given to improvise when plays break down.

“Those plays always come up once or twice in the game,” de Laura, the Washington State transfer who is in line to start, said last week. “We’ve just been working on it at practice, trying to execute when those plays come up. And I feel like we did pretty good.”

Fisch said the key for Arizona is to try to stay on script as much as possible on offense, particularly in situations where taking a risk isn’t worth it.

“I think the biggest mistake we would make is to try to limit (de Laura) and make him play in a phone booth, and not allow those plays to be encouraged as a staff.”

All those receiving weapons

No position is more completely revamped for Arizona than wide receiver, where four of the top five targets have either graduated, entered the NFL Draft (or both) or entered the NCAA transfer portal. In their place is a whole new crop of options for de Laura and the other UA quarterbacks to throw to.

Leading the way is 4-star prospect Tetairoa McMillan, who has been everything as advertised during spring ball. Also added from the 2022 signing class were AJ Jones and Kevin Green Jr., both of whom had showed flashes during practice.

UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing has also looked great out of the slot, while the tight end corps has gotten a major upgrade with the addition of 4-star prospect Keyan Burnett.

How do the lines hold up?

Though Arizona has had two previous scrimmages inside the stadium, as well as plenty of live, full-pad practices, quarterbacks have remained off limit all spring. That means the quarterbacks, who have worn red jerseys—compared to blue for the rest of the offense, and white for the defense—have been off-limits in terms of contact.

The same may apply during the spring game, but unlike in many of the live drills or scrimmages the chance for sacks might actually be available here. Officials may end up blowing the whistle as a defender gets within the vicinity of the QB, which would then result in a sack for the defense.

Arizona’s offensive line has allowed the most sacks and tackles for loss in the Pac-12 over the previous two seasons, and the first-team unit is mostly intact from last season. If that group is split between the two squads, there could be a lot of plays blown dead as pass rushers get into the backfield.

Red zone plays and defensive takeaways

Two main emphases in spring practice have been improving the offense’s play in the red zone and getting the defense to actually force some turnovers. Almost every workout, as well as both previous scrimmages, included periods dedicated to plays from within the opponents’ 20-yard line, while after the last practice defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said his units had recorded 23 takeaways during the spring.

There was one practice last week when the defense recorded four turnovers, matching the actual team’s entire tally in 2021.

Arizona only managed 12 touchdowns in 39 red zone possessions last season, a 30.8 percent TD rate that was the lowest in FBS in the past 13 seasons.

Plenty of antics

The scrimmage itself is supposed to be the main attraction, but as was the case last spring there will be quite a bit of off-the-field tomfoolery. Or possibly field adjacent.

Fisch, who isn’t attached to either team, figures to be serving as the game’s MC, which means he’ll probably be on the microphone a lot and bantering with the crowd. Last year he and Rob Gronkowski hosed the Zona Zoo and threw water balloons at them, and this year there’s a “Splash Zone” that will be in play.

Gronk won’t be back—or will he?—but don’t be surprised if Arizona tries to have someone else break a Guinness World Record like he did when he caught a football dropped out of a helicopter.

Expect plenty of special guests, including former UA QB Khalil Tate, who announced Thursday night on Twitter he’d be at the game for his first appearance in town in two years.