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Prior relationships, specific roster impact will be keys to Arizona football’s transfer portal activity

arizona-wildcats-football-ncaa-transfer-portal-2024-recuiting-starters-jedd-fisch Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Entering his first season as a head coach, Jedd Fisch grabbed as many players as he could from the NCAA transfer portal to help fill out a roster that resembled the bread aisle ahead of an approaching hurricane. The results from those pickups were mixed, at best, with only one addition (safety Gunner Maldonado) still on the team two years later.

The transfer portal was much more beneficial to Arizona’s 2022 team, as the likes of Jayden de Laura, Jacob Cowing and Hunter Echols were integral to the Wildcats going from 1-11 to 5-7. And the 2023 squad’s breakout performance was certainly aided by defensive pickups such as Taylor Upshaw, Tyler Manoa and Bill Norton.

But as the portal re-opened Monday for the next wave of transfers, Fisch and his staff are taking a much different approach to college football’s version of free agency.

“If we don’t know anything about them, I’m not interested,” he said. “We just can’t do it. If someone’s bringing their name, them to me, it’s that they have a prior relationship.”

Fisch said the portal moves so fast you can’t afford to take your time evaluating options, unlike with prep and junior college recruiting. Compound that with the urgency of other teams pursuing that player and there’s no room for a deep dive.

“You have to make very fast decisions,” he said. “In recruiting you can make long-term decisions, you might know them when they’re a sophomore in high school, a freshman in high school, a junior in high school. Here now you have a decision that you need to make, if you want to use one of your spots on a guy that you evaluated for seven minutes.”

Of the 10 transfers Arizona added for 2023, eight have combined to start 58 games with Manoa, Upshaw and Morton starting 35 games on the defensive line. The Wildcats would be looking for a similar type of instant impact in 2024, though there may not be as much of a need.

“To pass the start test with me is a very hard test to start with,” Fisch said. “It’s one thing to say hey, we’re going to being in Jayden de Laura a year ago to start, I get that. We don’t really have a lot of starting spots open.”

Arizona’s biggest needs for next season figure to be running back, defensive line and linebacker, while it also will have an offensive line starting spot to fill with Jordan Morgan being out of eligibility. The Wildcats also need a kicker and a long snapper.

As for players Arizona will lose to the portal, so far they have not been significant. The five players who had entered as of Tuesday combined for three starts during their UA careers, and in 2023 logged a total of 295 snaps with more than half combing on special teams. Fisch figures anyone else who leaves the program will be of the same ilk, ones looking for an opportunity to play more elsewhere, which he says is the right reason to transfer.

“There’s the few, that everybody likes to talk about, that make decisions for financial sake,” Fisch said. “And in that case, is that really a wise decision? I can tell you that if we’re only making decisions based on money, there’d be a lot of different scenarios that are occurring out here. There’s a lot more that has to go into it than just money, and I think that is really the key.”

This was a not-so-subtle reference to the loss of receiver Dorian Singer to USC. Singer went from being Arizona’s leading target in 2022, with more than 1,100 yards, to having the sixth-most catches with the Trojans.

“We all learned from a year ago and what the results are, and what that looks like,” Fisch said.

Fisch said he hopes that his top players recognize what has been accomplished this season and, for those that have eligibility remaining, they also understand what can happen next year. He points to Washington, which went 13-0 and is in the College Football Playoff, and its ability to keep much of the previous year’s team intact.

“They got everybody to come back,” Fisch said of the Huskies, whom Arizona lost to 31-24 at home in early October. “So, assuming everybody comes back, then I would think that we too would have a great opportunity. When teams try to poach your players, when teams try to take your players, when teams try to convince players to leave programs to go to another program, you got to be able to not allow that to happen. That’s what Washington was able to do. And I think that’s a key part of sustainability and building a program.

“There’s always gonna be people that are are trying to take your players. So you’ve got to avoid that. And you’ve got to make sure that these players understand their value to this program. The amount of games that I think they can win this year and next will be the story of college football.”