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Arizona football notebook: Training camp to feature split practices, position battles and ‘pitch counts’ for players coming back from injury

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Training camp gets underway on Wednesday morning for Arizona, and with so many new and young players there will be a strong emphasis on maximizing reps.

“We’ll be running a lot of two-field practices,” coach Jedd Fisch said. “So you’ll see the same drill going on in two different places. That’ll be the first thing we’ll do. We’ll try to figure out a way to get, not just 22 players taking a rep at practice but 44. So you’ll have the ones on one side of the field, the twos on the other side of the field, split our coaching staff in half and be able to develop our guys.”

Arizona’s practice facility has both an indoor and outdoor field, making it easier to run practices this way. A little of this went on in spring ball, but now with the full roster available the approach will become the norm for the first few weeks.

“The best way to get good at football is playing football,” Fisch said. “So the least amount of guys standing and the most amount of guys participate will be ideal.”

It will also help Arizona sort out two of its biggest position battles, at running back and inside linebacker. Neither area could get sorted out much during the spring because of injuries and the absence of likely contributors who didn’t arrive until the summer.

The UA’s two newest RBs are DJ Williams, a transfer from Florida State who began his career at Auburn, and 4-star freshman Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke. The linebacker room has been bolstered by the arrival of freshmen Jacob Manu and Sterling Lane II.

“Right now, our linebacker crew is young,” Fisch said. “We have Jerry (Roberts) coming off of an injury, we have Malik (Reed) who missed a lot of the spring. We have Ammon (Allen) who’s on his way up but just a sophomore. We have Kolbe, who’s just a sophomore. There’s a lot of moving parts with that inside linebacker group. Really looking forward to seeing where that shakes out.

Junior Michael Wiley is the frontrunner to be the starter at running back, based on his experience and pass-catching ability, but Drake Anderson, Jalen John and Stevie Rocker Jr. all got significant carries in 2021. Those three all got banged up during spring but are healthy, while Arizona also saw the promise of freshman Jonah Coleman during spring ball.

“I would say our running back room is going to be a really ... you only get to play one,” Fisch said. “It’s one of those unique positions where you could have a pretty good room, but you don’t really know because only one guy can play. So we’re gonna have to figure out that process of determining who’s going to be our running back.”

No competition at quarterback

Barring some unforeseen hurdle, Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura will be Arizona’s starting QB for the San Diego State game on Sept. 3. That was evident during spring ball when he got the bulk of the first-team reps, and nothing has changed.

“I believe Jayden has earned the right to be the quarterback at this point, and to start camp off as the quarterback,” Fisch said. “I have all expectations for Jayden to be our starting quarterback, and if that is the case, then he’s going to be the person that takes the reps with the ones. I think it’s really important that Jaden spends his time getting acclimated and getting snaps from the starting center, that he gets acclimated with throwing to the same group of receivers that we’re going to have to in season.”

Junior Jordan McCloud and freshman Noah Fifita will compete for the backup job. That would put sophomore Gunner Cruz, who started Arizona’s first two games in 2021, at No. 4, while Will Plummer isn’t ready to throw yet after having shoulder surgery in April.

This time a year ago, McCloud was behind the curve after arriving in June while neither Cruz or Plummer could do anything to stand out from the other.

“It’s a completely different situation than we were a year ago,” Fisch said. “We had Gunner and Will, and then we brought in Jordan in the summer. So we needed all three of them to just constantly rotate, who’s going where, who’s going when. We’ve had all the quarterbacks here in the spring and summer. That group of five has been here since January. So we’re in a much different place in terms of where we are. Now it’s a matter of the process of learning the offense, executing the offense, the process of getting better each day at quarterback.”

Health updates

Fisch said last week that defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and wide receiver Jamarye Joiner will be full participants in practice after each missing spring ball due to Jones fracture foot surgeries. Both could be on “pitch counts” at first, he said, in order to gauge what they can handle.

The same goes for sophomore center Josh Baker, who had surgery on his right pectoral muscle in the spring and wasn’t able to practice.

“I think he’ll be able to participate in about half of practice,” Fisch said of Baker. “We’re having a little bit of a snap count on him.”

Baker, who is expected to start at the position that had been held down by Josh McCauley the past few years, said he’s 100 percent healthy but understands why the coaches are being careful.

“I feel great but I’m gonna take it a day at a time,” he said. “I realize this is only for for my well being it’s not because they’re trying to punish me.”

Offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said it will be a “practice-by-practice” decision on what Baker can do.

“We’ll start slower and kind of just keep increasing it,” Carroll said. “There’s a bunch of opportunities to get reps in this camp format process that we’re working with. You can do everything in walkthrough so there’s nothing keeping him from that.”

Also expected to be a full participant is freshman offensive lineman Jacob Reece, who in the spring was diagnosed with a heart condition discovered during his physical. Fisch said Reese participated in every activity during the summer and is “full go” for camp.