Arizona’s preseason moved to another level on Saturday morning with a scrimmage inside the football stadium that featured about 85 snaps. It was the team’s first chance to work out on the new FieldTurf surface, which is considerably softer than the carpet that had been in there since 2013.
“I love it, it’s beautiful,” head coach Jedd Fisch said after the 2-hour practice, the eighth of fall camp.
The offense produced five touchdowns and three field goals during 11-on-11 competition, scoring 24 points on four trips into the red zone.
The biggest play of the morning was an 83-yard TD pass from freshman Noah Fifita to freshman AJ Jones. Jones ran a post route and got behind safety DJ Warnell and Fifita hit him in stride, creating the biggest cheer from the fans in attendance.
Fifita unofficially went 11 of 16 for 177 yards, mostly with the second-team offense against the No. 2 defensive unit, though he did get one series with the 1s in a 2-minute drill where he went 2 for 4 with both completions to old Servite High School teammate Tetairoa McMillan.
Jayden de Laura was 10 of 15 for 93 yards with a 4-yard TD pass on a fade to McMillan, who had a game-high four catches for 49 yards, while Jordan McCloud was 5 of 8 for 87 yards and a 4-yard TD pass to walk-on Gavin Smith and Gunner Cruz went 3 for 5 for 30 yards.
Florida State transfer DJ Williams was the top rusher, with 42 yards on five carries, and also caught an 8-yard pass, while freshmen Jonah Coleman and Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke each had TD runs and combined for 89 yards from scrimmage on 10 offensive touches.
16 different Wildcats caught at least one ball, including six different running backs. Tanner McLachlan was the only tight end to catch a pass, hauling in two for 13 yards.
Arizona’s defense did not register a takeaway but had a few near interceptions on tipped passes. It did five sacks, one each by freshmen Kevon Garcia and Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei and sophomore Jason Harris, with four others getting credited for a half sack.
Kicker Tyler Loop made 2 of 3 field goals in 11-on-11 drills, making from 32 and 40 yards and missing right from 52.
Is de Laura a gamer?
The solid scrimmage performance marked a second straight good outing for de Laura after a slow start to camp. The low point may have been during Thursday’s practice, when Fisch said something “clicked” when his likely opening game starter recognized some of the mistakes he was making.
“He struggled the day before yesterday, but there were some things that he just needed to see,” Fisch said. “He just needed a rhythm, and he’s got a nice little confidence about himself that, when he feels that he knows something, he’s going to execute it really well. Sometimes when you have a new play coming in or a couple new things that he was maybe overthinking here and there, but Jayden is getting better every day. I just tell him to trust the process, and if you do that good things will come your way.”
Fisch said he believes in the idea of a “gamer,” a player who looks much better when it counts than in practice, and that could be the case with de Laura.
“Guys that have the skill sets of a Jayden, that can run and throw, guys that are able to be slithery in the pocket like a Noah, even Jordan to a degree, that sometimes when you’re sitting back in the pocket and you’re not getting tackled in practice, it doesn’t look like you’re making some of the plays that you really would end up making,” Fisch said. “I think those are really the gamers, the guys that can make plays in games that in practice they’re sitting back there and not really doing their natural (thing). I would say the other part of it is there are guys that can turn it up a notch when the lights are on, and the big stage, and those are the guys that can get those resting heart rates down.”
The fast learner from FSU
Williams arrived in Tucson at the beginning of August, wasn’t able to participate in the first training camp practice because his final grade at Florida State hadn’t posted and looked out of shape once he got on the field. A little more than a week later, he looks like he could push for the starting running back gig.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Williams has looked both strong and fast in the past week, showing glimpses of the player who played in 19 games at Auburn and six more with the Seminoles after being a 4-star prospect from Florida in the 2019 recruiting class.
“He has experience, which is a huge difference than if you just got here and you’re a freshman,” Fisch said. “He has Auburn as a starter. He has FSU, so he’s had some offenses that he’s familiar with, so he can quickly say, ‘got it, that’s an inside zone play. I might have called it different somewhere else, but I recognize it, I see that the blocking scheme and I can go attack it.’
“He’s done a nice job of quickly understanding how to like say that this means this, so now I’ll do that. He’s a nice addition for us. We’re excited about how he runs downhill for sure.”
Revamped red zone
Where Williams, Luke and Coleman—who also had a stellar second week of camp after starting off slow—may end up having the biggest impact for Arizona this season is in the red zone, where Arizona was historically awful in 2021. The Wildcats scored TDs on only 12 of 39 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Fisch noted Saturday that the ability—or in the UA’s case last year, the inability—to run the ball in the red zone separates the good teams from the bad. Last season the Wildcats averaged 2.0 yards per carry on 57 red-zone run plays, including sacks.
In the scrimmage they ran on four of eight red-zone snaps, scoring twice on the ground.
“That red zone of last year is different than the red zone this year,” Fisch said. “I think our team is different from last year to this year, so everything’s different. You can’t just defend three passes in the red zone, that’s the worst red zone teams. The best red zone teams are the ones that run it the most and throw it the least when you get inside the 10. So hopefully, really the difference makers will become (from) are we better at running back? If we are, then they’ll have to defend us differently to open up some of the passing plays.”
Rough day for a depleted defense
While it was mostly smiles for the offensive players and coaches, the same couldn’t be said for Johnny Nansen’s defense. It didn’t help that he was missing several key players who were held out due to injury or other reasons.
Nansen said his defense tackled poorly, and being unable to force a turnover meant a major goal wasn’t met.
“We got a lot of things that need to correct,” he said. “We played with a lot of young guys, which was good. Some of these guys need to get in live situations, which was good for them today. There were some good things and bad things and we’ll try to fix those for next week.”
Making mistakes is part of the process, Nansen said, particularly in live situations.
“There’s no doubt, that’s the only way you’re gonna learn,” he said. “Throughout the years and (my) experience playing young guys, that’s the only way. You want them to watch the film and correct it in the film room and all that, in the meeting rooms and all that, but man, sometimes just plain experience will fix itself.”
One guy coming off an injury who was not limited was senior linebacker Jerry Roberts, who kept pace with Jacob Cowing and got his hands on the same deep post pass that Cowing scored on against him on Friday. Roberts broke his leg last November and was limited in spring ball.
Also impressive from an individual standpoint was freshman edge Russell Davis, who was very active in the backfield and defending in space.
“He’s got a bright future,” Nansen said. “He’s gonna be a guy that we’re going to hear about for the next three years. He’s a kid maybe in the middle of the year we’re gonna count on to rush the passer for us.”
Among those not dressing for the scrimmage were defensive lineman Kyon Barrs, cornerback Treydan Stukes, linebacker Jeremy Mercier, offensive lineman Anthony Patt and running back Jalen John, while Isaiah Mays wore a red jersey like the quarterbacks did to minimize contact.
Fisch said all of the players who didn’t dress were held out as a precaution, and he expects most to be available at Arizona’s next practice on Sunday night if not Tuesday morning. The exceptions are Stukes, who suffered some sort of right leg injury early in the week, and John, who hasn’t practiced since the first few days.
“I feel pretty confident that Stukes, Barrs are right on schedule to be able to play September 3rd,” Fisch said. “How long it takes between now and September 3rd will be a day-to-day situation. As far as Jalen, we’re still evaluating where he’s at.”
Two players that weren’t in attendance were freshman linebacker Jacob Manu and sophomore defensive lineman Tia Savea.
The scrimmage didn’t produce any notable injuries, though offensive lineman Leif Magnuson looked hobbled at one point and senior safety Christian Young had a scary moment late in the practice when he knocked knees with McMillan near the sideline and took a little while to get up.