Finally, a great day for the Arizona offense. And just in time for the first scrimmage of training camp.
The eighth preseason practice on Friday morning began earlier than the previous seven, and overall was on the lighter side ahead of Saturday’s scrimmage inside Arizona Stadium. Yet during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills both outside on the Dick Tomey practice fields and inside the Davis Sports Center, the UA offense put together its most complete performance of camp.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura threw several touchdown passes, including a pair of long ones to Jacob Cowing. The first was a deep ball in which Cowing got past linebacker Jerry Roberts and safety Jaxen Turner over the middle, while the second showed off Cowing’s speed by sprinting through the defense after catching a short pass.
It didn’t hurt that several of Arizona’s projected defensive starters and seasoned vets either sat out the drills or had limited snaps. Still, it was a welcome sight after so many practices where the offense was getting outplayed on a regular basis.
Assessing the pass rush
Arizona has a lot of experience on the edge this season, at least on the first line of the depth chart. After that the game knowledge drops off the table.
Projected starters Hunter Echols and Jalen Harris are both sixth-year seniors, with the former coming to the UA after five seasons at USC and the latter one of two remaining Wildcats—the other is JB Brown—from the 2017 squad that played in the Foster Farms Bowl (though Harris redshirted). Combined they’ve played in 82 games, with Harris making 28 career starts.
Of the potential backups at each position, most have little or no experience in a college game beyond third-year sophomore Paris Shand, who will also play at the two interior defensive line spots. It’s entirely possible that true freshmen Russell Davis II and Sterling Lane could see significant playing time, including in the opener at San Diego State, considering defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s intent to rotate in as many players as possible through the front seven.
Whoever is out there, sacking the quarterback isn’t the only goal according to defensive ends/outside linebackers coach Jason Kaufusi.
“We talk about affecting the quarterback,” he said. “If it’s an incomplete pass, because it’s a tip or overthrow. We all love sacks, right, but obviously affecting the quarterback in terms of completions, whether the ball (was thrown) over (the receiver’s head), or he spiked the ball or ran out of bounds.”
Arizona had 22 sacks last season, including four from Harris. The Wildcats were credited with 83 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus, with Harris’ 12 tied for second-most on the team.
Bulking up the young bucks
Davis and Lane have shown a lot of promise in camp, mostly because of their speed and agility. For now that’s making up for their lack of size, at least in the weight category.
Davis is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, while Lane is 6-3 and 220 pounds. Kaufusi said ideally he’d like to have them get to 240 or 245 pounds to maximize the effectiveness at the position.
“They’re developing along just fine,” he said. “Usually when you get freshmen coming in, the biggest thing is weight, how physical, how strong they are, and then just the mental. How fast the game is going. And they’re hanging in there, they’re doing a good job. But in general, whatever you bring to the table when you can get the job done, I’m okay with that. The bottom line is production.”
Harris, who during a post-practice interview was asked to recite the six position coaches and five defensive coordinators he’s had at Arizona, has been impressed with Davis and Lane and their ability to learn fast. He also can relate to their need to gain weight.
“I told them that when I came in, I was only 200 pounds,” said Harris, who is now listed at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds. “I had to focus on eating, I told them you need to be consistent, that’s the only way it’s going to work. You’re not gonna be hungry all the time, but you still got to eat. It makes you maintain that weight.”
Finishing the journey
Echols appeared in 37 games for USC, logging 50 tackles, but was never a full-time player with the Trojans. He could easily top that tackle total this season with Arizona as he likely will start in the “Cat” position that’s a hybrid of an edge rusher and outside linebacker.
Playing time surely factored into his decision to leave USC, but Echols said he prefers not to dwell on the past or how he got to Tucson.
“I’m just focused on being here with Arizona and being present in the moment,” he said. “I’m not worried about what I did at any other place. I’m just worried about what’s going on right here. I’m proud of my journey and my success, whatever you want to call it. I love what I’ve done in college football. I love the coaches that I’ve been a part of, been around. I just want to continue to get better. I feel my career is different than anybody else’s but it’s mine.”
Time to test out the new turf
Saturday’s scrimmage will also mark the first time Arizona is practicing on its new artificial turf inside the stadium. The old carpet, which had been in place since the 2013 season, was pulled out after the Spring Game in April.
The scrimmage is open to the public, while over at the beach volleyball facility another Fan Fest is planned.