Of the 23 high school players that Arizona signed in the 2022 recruiting class, its best in at least 15 years, 14 were from California and the majority hailed from the southern part of the state. The 2023 class is shaping up to have the same makeup, with eight of 17 known commitments coming from the Golden State.
As coach Jedd Fisch sees it, that reliance on California prospects will only increase as UCLA and USC prepare to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024.
“We are a California-based recruiting program,” Fisch said at Pac-12 Football Media Day. “We have committed as much time and energy as possible to commit to recruit Southern California, and that is our goal moving forward. We have done a really great job with our coaching staff in recruiting the state of Arizona, California and Hawaii. And we will continue to do that and make Southern California a pipeline for the University of Arizona.”
Losing UCLA and USC definitely hurts the Pac-12 from a national standpoint, both in terms of quality of play and future TV contracts. While Fisch understands that, he also sees how their departure can benefit the Arizona program he’s trying to rebuild.
“I hope what it does is, when parents are making decisions on wanting to watch their children play, they don’t have to get on a plane and fly into Newark,” he said. “They don’t have to get on a plane and fly in to Iowa. They don’t have to get on a plane and fly into Ann Arbor. They get to just get in a car and drive five and a half hours, next thing you know they’re at Arizona, and then they can be able to watch their their sons play right here on the West Coast and right in primetime television. And we’re hopeful that that’s gonna be a huge benefit for us going forward.”
Arizona won’t be the only school that will use this type of “negative recruiting” to sway prospects. Fisch said he’s starting to hear the tactics other programs are using to convince recruits not to play for the Wildcats, beyond just gesturing at the Pac-12 standings from the last few years.
“I’ve heard a lot of coaches tell our recruits that we’re an offseason team, and I would say this: we have had a great offseason, and I appreciate them recognizing that,” he said. “I also believe that we’re going to be a really good in-season team.”
Fisch said Arizona has spent $15 million in the last 15 months to rebrand and enhance the football facilities, which he believes helped the Wildcats “win in the transfer portal.” He also thinks the UA’s pro-style approach has also become attractive to players, both in high school and already in college, who want to play in the NFL.
“We talk to our players all the time about being the 33rd NFL team, based on our experiences in the league,” said Fisch, who coached in the NFL for 11 seasons including with the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots prior to taking the Arizona job. “We have 150 years of NFL experience on our staff, and what we’ve done is we’ve tried to commit to allowing our players to see it from the inside out, to see what the NFL looks like, to see what it looks like to be a pro and to see what it looks like to build champions.
Arizona didn’t have anyone taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, the fifth time that’s happened in the past 10 years. But 10 members of the 2022 squad are on the preseason watch list for the East-West Shrine Bowl, a postseason all-star game that’s used as a showcase for NFL scouts, and a breakout season from one or more underclassmen could get them on the draft radar.
“I think that a lot of people talk about that they can get you to the next level or they know what the next level looks like, but you actually have to be there to know it,” Fisch said. “I feel like it gives us an opportunity, based on the the relationships that we have with coaches at the next level, to be able to talk with them and kind of see what they’re looking for and see how the trends of the NFL has changed. And as we share our message with our recruits and our players, we’re going to do everything we can to get you a chance to be at the next level, and then it’s up to you after that.”