The regular season is finally here for Arizona, which since losing at ASU last November to complete a 1-11 campaign has vowed to do everything it can to rebuild the program to a respectable level. The first chance to see if all that work has paid off comes on Saturday afternoon when the Wildcats visit San Diego State in a game that will be shown nationally on CBS.
“Excited about game week starting, today is really the first day of game week, and the build of Arizona,” coach Jedd Fisch said Monday at the first of his weekly press conferences. “And that’s really what we’re looking at and talking about throughout our whole process here, how can we build Arizona football to where we want it to be and where we want it to go.”
Fisch said he was “cautiously optimistic” heading into an opener, against a team that blew the UA out 38-14 last season in his first home game as coach, but there’s always uncertainty until the games are played.
“We’ve never played together as a football team yet, we’ve got 70 players that have never played together,” he said. “We have (50) players that weren’t our team (in 2021). We have to see what it’s all going to look like, but I do believe that if we do what I think we can do, we’ll be able to start this build the way we want it to.”
Here’s what else Fisch discussed Monday:
On the three keys to Arizona’s rebuilding plan: “It’s going to come down to culture, it’s going to come down to schematics and it’s gonna come down to players.”
On the team culture: “We’re really talking about the Wildcat principle. We’re saying to our team and we talk to our team constantly about trusting the process, playing with passion, loving your teammates, embracing the grind and playing the next play. And we feel as if with our culture, if we can really focus in on that and focus in on those five principles, we’ll be able to get this build going the way we want it to go.”
On having a better roster: “We certainly understand the importance of players. And this offseason, we’ve really focused in on bringing in a lot of new players, retaining the right players, developing our older players and seeing how good we can be as a team. Really fortunate that our staff did such a great job recruiting, hats off to them, to bring in the type of recruiting class we brought in, and also the transfer port and the players that we brought in through the transfer portal. Fortunately for us, the momentum has continued for 2023. And we’ve found that recruiting has done really well for us. And we know that if we’re going to build Arizona football to where we want it to go, it’s going to come down to being able to have another great recruiting class. And then our players that stayed and our players that are with us. Our fourth- and fifth-year players have really embraced what we’ve asked them to do. They’ve become great leaders.”
On installing a system that fits the players’ skill sets: “We have excellent football coaches on our staff, guys that have had years upon years of experience. We felt it was really important as we go into this season, that we cater our Xs and Os to our players. We were really going to spend our time focusing in on what does our offense and the players do best? And let’s put our scheme in place for that. What do our defensive players do best, and let’s put our defensive scheme in place for that. And then the importance of the kicking game.”
On Arizona’s captains: “The five captains for this year, that the players have voted on yesterday: Christian Roland-Wallace, Christian Young, Jalen Harris, Jordan Morgan and Jayden de Laura. The leadership that these guys have brought over the course of the summer and the course of the spring, we’re very grateful to them and to what we’re trying to build.”
On retaining a (mostly) consistent coaching staff from 2021: “I certainly feel that what we’ve been able to do is continue to bring in the culture we want and really develop the culture we want, and with the experiences that we’ve had with the players on our football team, and then the staff working together for another year. We’re about 90 percent together as a coaching staff, just two new coaches. So we’re a little more familiar with one another. We feel good about that part of it, and I thought we had a very good football camp. I thought our training camp was really good.”
On why he pursued Johnny Nansen to be defensive coordinator: “The number one thing with Johnny that we’ve talked about in the past was the fact that he’s so familiar with the West Coast and the Pac-12. And the fact that he’s coached at so many different teams, played in the Pac-12. Coached at Washington, coached at USC, coached at UCLA, and now he’s coaching at Arizona. So that was the number one thing that I felt very comfortable with, that he was currently coaching in the Pac-12 and felt very good about his understanding of what he can do to stop an offense. I also love his passion. If we’re going to talk about part of our culture is going to be playing with passion, that we needed coaches that were going to coach with that same type of passion, to be able to get players to run through a wall for him. I think Johnny and (DE/OLB coach) Jason Kaufusi, and our whole coaching staff are able to do that.”
On advice he gave to Nansen ahead of his first game as a play caller: “The only thing we talked about regarding calling his first game as a defensive coordinator was be you, be confident. Believe in your preparation. That was what I think is the number one thing you can tell anybody, trust the process, right? You’ve worked awfully hard to get to where you’re at, and if you do that, I believe that good things will come.
On which players might not be available for the opener: “I believe ... everybody that’s practiced over the last two weeks will be available for the game. (Of) the players that didn’t practice over the last two weeks, which I would guess would probably just be Treydan Stukes, I hope he’ll be available for the game. That is the plan. Otherwise, everyone’s been back since Friday’s practice, so we should be good to go.”
On having a better situation at QB than a year ago: “Certainly the quarterback position being secure adds a confidence among the locker room, as well as the third floor, because you know who is taking those snaps, you know what he can do, you know what you want him to do. We feel very confident in Jayden and what he’s been trying to get done. He has to just know that he can go out there and do everything we asked of him because he certainly looks like he can. He’s shown the ability to be able to process our offense. We’ve tried to set our schematics and our Xs and Os up for his success. And I believe that if he goes out there and trusts the guys around them, believes in the other 10 like he’s shown that he has the last month, or last couple of weeks of training camp for sure, we feel a lot better about having Jayden back there as a team. We feel very good about having him be our leader.”
On what he remembers from last year’s SDSU game, and if that matters going into this one: “They jumped on it very fast. We had seven offensive plays and it was 21-0. So that was obviously the biggest challenge, but it’s a totally different team. They they’re totally different, we’re different. So what stands out to me is that we didn’t play well enough to win last year. We can’t go down 21-0 against most teams. I think that they’re gonna play hard, they’re going to play fast and they’re going to be physical. That part of the team won’t be different. And that’s what we have to be able to be prepared for.”
On playing on CBS for the season opener: “I don’t think too much about that, actually. I just kind of think that our team just needs to go out there and play football. Believe in what we’ve asked them to do, trust the process and preparation. Recognize that this is the first day of the build, and then we’re going to just do everything we possibly can to play our best game on Saturday, regardless of who’s watching.”
On being the opponent for a team breaking in a new stadium: “I think that our team has to just go out there and play good football. That’s where we’re at right now, that we need to go out there as a team, as a program, and believe in what we’ve asked them to do. The process of preparation, committing to the process of getting better every single day, and not get wrapped up in opening up a new stadium and not get wrapped up in the crowd and not get wrapped up in who we’re play and just do the best we can as a football team to get better.”
On the offensive line: “Our offensive line is pretty veteran. The two tackles are both veteran players that have started for a while. Our interior guys, Josh Donovan was a starter for us last year, he’s looked really improved throughout all training camp; Jonah Savaiinaea has done a fantastic job coming in here as a true freshman, but he did get here in January so he had the advantage of spring football. And Josh Baker ... very intelligent, spent a ton of time in the weight room. Really has a great grasp of offensive football. So feel good about that group. And then Sam Langi, Joe Borjon, JT Hand, those guys have added a lot of depth to the team that we didn’t necessarily have last year at this moment in time. So that’s been good.”
On the defensive line: “Our defensive line all four interior guys, five interior guys are all healthy and back. You have Tia (Savea) and Kyon Barrs both back, you have Tank Wilson and Paris Shand ready to go. I think we’ll probably get some Jacob Kongaika out there as well, so excited about all five of those interior defensive linemen available. On the edges, Hunter Echols transferred in from USC, has had a very, very good camp. Jalen Harris on the other side, we all know what Jalen has done for us, he’s continuing to get stronger, continuing to get more comfortable, more confident. So both of those guys on the edges, we feel good that they’re getting better every day.”
On SDSU quarterback Braxton Burmeister: “We played him, I think when he was at Oregon and I was at UCLA in 2017. And I think he actually played in that game as a true freshman. I’ve seen him, I knew him. Jimmie was only at Oregon for about six weeks, but then he came to us at UCLA, so I’m familiar with who (Burmeister) is. I’ve seen him play, I’ve watched a lot of Virginia Tech film this past weekend. Coach Nansen is responsible for putting together the plan there, and he’s done a fantastic job of understanding what he does, talking through what his skill set is. We understand he’s shown the ability to both be a very good runner as well a good passer, which is a tough thing to to handle. He’s certainly a good dual-threat quarterback and he has a lot of experience playing now in his third Power 5 system.”
On committing to playing a lot of freshmen: “I don’t know the exact number of freshmen that will be starting but I would expect us probably to have between seven to 10 freshmen playing in the game. True freshmen, and then additional set of redshirt freshmen. We told our guys trust your preparation. I’ll talk to them again tomorrow and again certainly on Friday evening about that, that they have to understand the field is the field. They played on 120 yards (long) 53 (wide) their whole lives. They have to be able to handle the early wind of adrenaline and emotion that goes into being a young football player for the first time getting out there at a Division I program. But we also made a decision we’re gonna play a lot of young players, we made a decision that we’re comfortable with that. And, in order to build us Arizona to where we want it to go, we know that we’re going to have to do all we can to alleviate some of those pressures and stresses that they might have.”
On expectations for LB Jerry Roberts, who is coming off a broken leg: “I expect him to start opening day. As I watch him and watch him develop last season, when he went in week seven, I believe it was, for the final four games and then unfortunately got hurt on the first play (at Washington State) ... so he actually played three games plus, he was getting better every week. So my expectation is for him to improve every week. He’s really grown into a leader on the team. We put him on the Leadership Council as of last week because of the way he’s handled himself at practice every day, and how much he’s done and committed in the weight room as well. So I would just say that I would expect Jerry to go out there and improve every day but be a big impact for us.”
On why he thinks the team has bought into the rebuilding plan: “I can only go off and how we practice every day. How the kids prepare. Their knowledge base has certainly improved. The way they talk the game, the way they behave off the field. We had our best semester ever this summer, so it tells me that they were doing things right off the field academically. What they’ve done in the community, and then when they show up on the practice field, they’re ready to work. They’ve got a tremendous confidence and very good demeanor when they get out there. There’s no no lates, there’s no guys dragging their cleats. There’s no guys that aren’t excited about going out there to play. Now, of course, for us the key is this: now you have to go play.”