After 15 practices, including two scrimmages, Arizona has shifted from training camp mode into regular-season mode. Tuesday’s practice will see the Wildcats shift all focus toward preparing for the 2022 season opener at San Diego State.
The second preseason camp under coach Jedd Fisch was vastly different from the first one, mostly because of the massive talent upgrade to the roster. Being able to observe all 15 workouts provided a glimpse of what to expect from the Wildcats this fall, though there’s still time to tweak things depending on injuries and how they want to attack the Aztecs on Sept. 3.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Arizona is a 6-point underdog for the opener at SDSU.
Here’s what stood out the most during training camp:
Depth is still an issue at several positions
Arizona is vastly better at almost every position than it was a year ago, the product of the best recruiting class in at least 15 years and a impactful group of transfers. That will make for a much better first unit, but what about after that?
Of the 110 players listed on the online roster, 60 of them are either true or redshirt freshmen. Of the latter group, only a handful got into a game last season and offensive lineman JT Hand is the only one that started a game.
The starting offensive line is set, but Hand and redshirt junior Sam Langi are the only reliable backups at this point. After that, it’s a whole lot of raw.
Injuries have impacted Arizona’s defensive line and secondary. Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s desire to rotate nine or more guys up front may be hard to achieve if that group can’t stay healthy, and even if they do there’s going to be a lot of youth getting thrown into the fire.
True freshmen cornerbacks Tacario Davis and Ephesians Prysock, both of whom have shown a mix of promise and growing pains in camp, could play a lot more than initially thought depending on the status of sophomore Treydan Stukes, who missed the last two weeks with a leg injury.
“We’re going to count on those kids to play for us,” Nansen said.
Russell Davis II is too good not to play right away
Arizona will start at least two true freshmen on offense in wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan and left guard Jonah Savaiinaea, and possibly Keyan Burnett depending on if the Wildcats go with one or two tight ends, but that was all evident back in spring practice. Coleman also had a great spring, and after a slow start to fall camp he’s in line to be a big contributor, while Luke’s speed and footwork will get him touches.
Most of the UA’s defensive prep signees didn’t arrive until the summer, lessening the chance they’d be playing right away. But Russell Davis II not only climbed that steep hill, he went back down and did it again.
“I expected this,” Nansen said Saturday night, after Davis had two sacks and was constantly in the bacjfield. “He’s gonna have to step up and help us out, especially with our depth. He studies the game really, really hard. He’s a natural pass rusher.”
Fisch said Davis, the 2021 Arizona High School Defensive Player of the Year, has added 23 pounds since arriving on campus on June 1. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, which is very small for an edge rusher, yet it hasn’t seemed to matter at this point.
“I think we all knew he had some twitchiness and some pop,” Fisch said. “When he started putting on the pounds and started gaining some size, that’s when we started seeing him move up with up with the reps.”
Running backs will be heavily involved in passing game
The likely pecking order at running back goes junior Michael Wiley, senior DJ Williams and true freshman Jonah Coleman, but it’s very likely the UA will play as many as six RBs in a game. Just don’t expect them to all get carries, and certainly not a bunch.
Every Arizona rusher has made big plays in camp, and in the scrimmages, catching passes out of the backfield, and that’s not by accident. Wiley caught 33 passes last season, tied for second-most on the team, while Coleman had two sizable gains on receptions in the mock game and the Wildcats figure to use freshman Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke’s wheels in the passing game as much as possible.
If he can do this on a handoff, imagine what he can do in space?
The fifth defensive back is the linchpin
Nansen’s base scheme is a 4-2-5, and one of those five spots on the back line will be a hybrid safety/nickel corner who will play on the line as much as he does behind the rest of the defense. A lot will depend on what formation an opponent is going with on offense.
Sophomore Gunner Maldonado looks to be the top choice for this spot, with sophomore Jaydin Young his primary backup. That duo combined for 13 starts at safety a year ago, and while they combined for 80 tackles they also missed quite a few.
Per Pro Football Focus, each missed 13 tackles in 2021 and had miss rates of more than 20 percent. And on coverage, both allowed their assignments to catch more than 70 percent of targets and score 11 touchdowns (nine against Young).
Jalen Harris won’t be sharing the No. 1 jersey
One of the traditions that Fisch implemented during his first season was to award the No. 1 jersey on offense and defense to players who established themselves as leaders, both in terms of on-field performance but also accountability off the field.
Wide receiver Stanley Berryhill III was the offensive jersey wearer, while defensive end Jalen Harris got it on defense. Harris has retained No. 1 for his sixth season at Arizona, but the offensive No. 1 is still up for grabs.
And it’s probably not going to be awarded to anyone for 2022. The most likely candidates had been Wiley (No. 6) and UTEP transfer wide receiver Jacob Cowing (No. 2), but apparently neither has moved the needle if either actually wanted it or not.
“Right now there’s not much competition for the No. 1 jersey, we’re deciding if we’re going to hold onto that one or not,” Fisch said. “Guys have to want No. 1 and win No. 1.”
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