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Fake it ‘til you make it: Arizona hoping play action is key to opening up offense

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-camp-play-action-delaura-dougherty-wiley-graham-2022 Arizona Athletics

It’s no hyperbole to say that Arizona has to get better in all facets on offense in order to have a chance to win games this season. Last year the Wildcats topped 19 points in a game only twice, and in both contests their scoring was aided by a defensive or special teams touchdown.

The UA did its best to address its offensive deficiencies on the recruiting trail, adding some high-level prospects in wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, tight end Keyan Burnett and running backs Jonah Coleman and Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke, as well as via the transfer portal by bringing in receiver Jacob Cowing and running back DJ Williams.

But whether Arizona’s offense improves, and by how much, will come down to how it executes the plays that are called. And in some cases, pretend to execute.

“I want to be the best faking team in the country,” UA running backs coach Scottie Graham said. “You look at the systems that run the same offensive as us, from the 49ers, to Miami, to Minnesota, the fakes are so important for the play action, because you want to mirror the runs with the play action. So the Mike or the Will linebacker, they don’t know if we’re running it of if it’s play action. So I’ve challenged them to be the best faking team in the country.”

The Wildcats showed a lot of play action during training camp, which ended Saturday night with a “mock game” inside Arizona Stadium, hoping to use deception in the backfield in order to open things up downfield. Last year the UA was woeful on play fakes, completing only 52.5 percent of its passes in that concept with two TDs and five interceptions on 101 dropbacks.

That heavily contributed to Arizona going just 9 of 37 on passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field.

Having a productive run game is a big part of making play action work, and not counting sack yardage the UA averaged 5.3 yards per rush in 2021. But just as important, if not more so, is the ability to convince the defense that the ball is staying on the ground.

And that process takes a village. Quarterback, running back, receivers and offensive line all have to sell the run even though they know a pass is coming.

“It’s got to look, taste, smell, feel like the run to the defense,” passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty said. “They have to see that ball get extended out into the back’s belly, the back’s got to do a good job of rolling over it, and the line’s got to do a great job of (keeping) low hats, low pad level, and making it feel and look and everything like the run.”

Quarterback Jayden de Laura said selling a play fake is similar to bluffing in poker, and he’s studied one of the best at football subterfuge.

“I kind of watch Aaron Rodgers and just how he makes his play fakes and everything, so I kind of try to take that from a game,” de Laura said.

The running back is the key to it all, though. It’s how he goes about collecting a handoff that isn’t actually coming and then running as if he’s got a ball that’s still in the QB’s hands.

Junior Michael Wiley said he grabs at his collar and pulls down on his shoulder pads to make it look like he’s cradling a football. If that causes him to draw defenders, mission accomplished.

“I did my job right there,” he said. “It’s perfect.”