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5 questions about Arizona football entering 2022 season

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-questions-delaura-freshmen-turnovers-red-zone-2022-pac12-fisch Arizona Athletics

We’re less than two weeks away from the start of the 2022 college football season for the Arizona Wildcats, who open Sept. 3 at San Diego State and will debut a completely different team from the one that went 1-11 in Jedd Fisch’s first year on the job.

Training camp is over, with practices now focused on preparing for the Aztecs and ironing out the playing rotation at various positions. On Monday we identified the biggest things we learned about this team during camp, but there are still plenty of questions that won’t get answered until actual games are played.

Here are the biggest of those queries, which will determine whether the UA can go over or under DraftKings Sportsbook’s projection of three wins for 2022:

Does JDL have what it takes, and can he stay healthy?

There was no quarterback competition this preseason, as Jayden de Laura was unofficially anointed the starter back in spring ball. In training camp the Washington State transfer got all the first-team snaps, save for one practice that he missed last week due to some bad Chipotle, and after some struggles early on he became more and more comfortable with the offense and his wealth of targets.

de Laura also looked solid in both scrimmages, spreading the ball around and also showing off his scrambling ability when necessary. He said after Saturday’s mock game that he feels “really comfortable in the pocket” but that he’s not afraid to take off if the situation calls for it.

Will this all translate into actual games, though? Quarterbacks have worn red jerseys all camp, and in the scrimmages, meaning they’re off limits to contact, so the first time de Laura takes a hit will probably be at SDSU. He got banged up a couple of times last season at WSU, and at 6-0, 205 pounds he’s not the most sturdily built passer.

de Laura is a major upgrade from what Arizona had at QB last season, but if he were to get hurt the options would be a true freshman (Noah Fifita) who regressed a bit toward the end of camp and a redshirt junior (Jordan McCloud) who doesn’t have a particularly strong arm.

Will the offensive line hold up?

Arizona returns four O-linemen that combined to start 37 games last season, but while that experience is great that was also from contests in which the Wildcats yielded 35 sacks and had all three of its quarterbacks suffer significant injuries.

Starting tackles Paiton Fears and Jordan Morgan were responsible for 11 of those sacks, per Pro Football Focus, as well as one-third of the 102 times a UA passer was hurried in 2021.

There’s also the issue of depth up front. While the starting five, including true freshman Jonah Savaiinaea at left guard, are known quantities, beyond that there’s a significant dropoff. Redshirt freshman JT Hand is the sixth lineman, with the ability to play center or guard, and redshirt junior Sam Langi would be next up after that.

If Arizona has to go beyond seven linemen, though, it’s a crapshoot.

Is the red zone going to stop being a disaster zone?

It’s hard to imagine Arizona being any worse inside the 20-yard line, offensively or defensively, than a year ago. The Wildcats had the worst red zone defense in the country, third-worst in terms of touchdown percentage, and when they had the ball in the red zone their 12 TDs in 39 possessions (30.77 percent) was the lowest since at least 2008, if not further back.

Fisch is confident that the UA will be significantly better on both sides in this area, the result of better weapons on offense and a massive amount of snaps taken inside the 20 in camp.

“We’ve committed a lot of man hours to red zone, we’ve committed a lot of practice hours to red zone,” Fisch said. “The biggest thing for us was the execution, and could we improve each day. Guys that are more confident running routes, or bigger backs that are harder to tackle, give you a better chance in the red zone.”

Fisch said the defense should also benefit from having to practice against the likes of 6-foot-5 Tetairoa McMillan, 6-6 Keyan Burnett and running backs like DJ Williams and Jonah Coleman who bring a lot more size to the run game.

“They started to see a lot of things that they couldn’t defend last year,” he said. “The bigger, taller receivers, now we have them. The tight ends that can be displaced out, now we have that. And then the speed at running back and the size. So we at least are giving them this opportunity.”

Can the defense actually force turnovers?

Arizona’s six takeaways in 2021 were tied for the fewest by a team in a non-COVID season since at least 2000, and three of those came in the embarrassing home loss to NAU. That was in a defense put in by Don Brown (known as Dr. Blitz) that emphasized using pressure to create mistakes, and while the Wildcats were much better on D this was an area that still lacked.

New defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s scheme is also pressure-focused, but with more zone concepts than Brown had. Will that make a difference?

It sure seemed to during training camp, at least in practices. In the two scrimmages, not so much: the defense tallied zero turnovers.

The UA had a minus-17 turnover margin last season, and it was outscored 79-10 on points off turnovers. Cut that in half and that’s at least another win or two.

How reliant will Arizona be on true freshmen?

McMillan and Savaiinaea will start on offense, with Burnett the second tight end behind sophomore Alex Lines, and running backs Jonah Coleman and Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke will be in the mix with the run and pass games.

Defensively, edge Russell Davis II had a huge camp and will see a lot of snaps, while cornerbacks Tacario Davis and Ephesians Prysock could play right away in a reserve role depending on the health of Treydan Stukes.

Throw in Fifita as the backup QB and receivers Kevin Green Jr. and AJ Jones and the Wildcats could have 11 true freshmen make their collegiate debuts in the season opener. That’s normally not ideal, but considering this is the school’s best recruiting class in at least 15 years, it’s not surprising.

The talent in the freshman class is enormous, but with reliance on so many young players could come some growing pains early on.

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