Jayden de Laura is Arizona’s starting quarterback, but to expect him to stay healthy all season long is unrealistic. Having a competent backup at the position is key for the Wildcats, as we saw a year ago when injuries and inefficiency led to a revolving door at QB and an overall team passer rating (112.46) that ranked last in the Pac-12 and 115th-nationally.
Wednesday morning’s practice, the 12th of Arizona’s preseason training camp, provided freshman Noah Fifita with his first chance to work exclusively with the first-team offense as he competes with junior Jordan McCloud to be de Laura’s understudy.
Fifita got that opportunity because de Laura was not at practice, one of several Wildcats who were either absent or not in uniform on Tuesday.
An athletic department spokesman had no comment on the reason for the absence of de Laura or junior wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who hasn’t participated in the last three practices and was only briefly in attendance on Monday.
Fifita looked mostly comfortable working with the 1s, much more than he did during Saturday’s scrimmage when he got one series with the first team. His play has been consistent throughout camp, picking up Jedd Fisch’s offense quickly and showing poise in the pocket and when flushed from it.
Shand standing tall
Arizona’s defense had its best practice in nearly a week, getting its hands on a lot of passes. That included an interception by sophomore defensive lineman Paris Shand in which he tipped the ball to himself after dropping back to cover the middle.
UA defensive line coach Ricky Hunley said a play like that indicates Shand knows what needs to be done if he can’t get to the quarterback.
“It shows that he’s focused on his keys,” he said. “When the quarterback’s throwing the ball you want him to try to match the hands and have a feel for it, because you know the ball is going to be coming out after three seconds. So as you’re getting a push, and you’re trying to get yourself in line or you can get your hands up and match his hands. Just like we drill it.”
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Shand, in his third year with the program but still relatively new to football after taking it up in 11th grade back in Toronto, has been training at all three defensive line positions. That’s come in handy during fall camp considering the absences on the line, whether it be Kyon Barrs sitting out the scrimmage or Tia Savea missing the scrimmage and the last few practices and freshmen Isaiah Johnson and Jacob Kongaika also missing time.
Before football, Shand played basketball and soccer, serving as a goalie in the latter.
“We want to recruit guys from the gym rats, they’re always active, doing something new, training different muscles with football, basketball, soccer,” Hunley said. “Change of direction and speed is a key to success.”
A fired up Tank
Arizona generally goes through one or two practice periods before coming together and going through warm-up drills as a team, and each workout there seems to be a different Wildcat who takes the initiative to lead the way.
On Wednesday it was Dion ‘Tank’ Wilson Jr., a third-year junior defensive lineman who was quite animated as UA players went back and forth from the end zone to the 20-yard line through various stretches and exercies.
Lsted at 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, Wilson is up 20 pounds from the 2020 season when he played in four of five games. He played in seven games a year ago, recording nine tackles including 1.5 for loss, and is part of the planned deep rotation of defensive linemen Arizona wants to employ this season.
“Tank’s been doing great, he’s still gotta continue to work on his flexibility,” Hunley said. “He’s more explosive when he’s coming out of his stance and gets his hands extended. I mean, he’s done a great job in the offseason taking good care of his body and getting his body fat down. He’s got tremendous upside.”
- After sitting out Tuesday’s practice, freshman wide receiver AJ Jones was back in action but wore a red jersey. That’s a sign he was hands-off from hard contact, as is the case for quarterbacks in all practices.
- Freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Johnson had a boot on his right foot as he watched from the sidelines.
- Among those not in attendance Wednesday were running back Jalen John and defensive backs Isaiah Rutherford and Treydan Stukes, while redshirt freshman Anthony Patt was back in uniform after missing a few practices including the first scrimmage.