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What to watch for during Arizona football’s spring practice

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-practice-jedd-fisch-newcomers-defense-jayden-delaura-2023 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The vast majority of attention is being paid toward Arizona’s basketball teams, which both hit the road this week to compete in their respective NCAA tournaments, while the Wildcats’ baseball and softball squads are coming off strong starts to Pac-12 play and have their eye on playing in the postseason in a few months.

So, too, does Arizona football, which begins spring practice Tuesday. Coach Jedd Fisch is hoping the 15 practices between now and April 15 will lay the groundwork for the Wildcats getting into a bowl game this year, which would be their first since 2017.

“It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve been on the practice field, way too long,” Fisch said Monday. “Getting done November 25, and not having a bowl game, makes for a long offseason. Hopefully we’ll never have to go this long again.”

Arizona will practice Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, with those workouts starting around 3:30 p.m. MT. The first, second and fourth Saturday practices are at 11:40 a.m., with the April 1 practice set for 7 p.m. and the Spring Game on tap for April 15 at 3:30 p.m. All workouts are open to the public.

Here’s what to look for from the Wildcats during spring ball:

Who’s in, who’s out

Arizona’s spring roster includes 93 players, 22 of which are new to the program, with another 13 players from the 2023 signing class (along with more walk-ons) expected to arrive in June. Four players on the roster are unavailable for the spring, most notably offensive tackle Jordan Morgan, who is recovering from left knee surgery that kept him from declaring for the NFL Draft.

Also out for spring, due to recent surgeries, are redshirt freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Johnson, senior linebacker Anthony Solomon and true freshman defensive back Arian Parish.

Among the newcomers here for spring are several transfers on the defensive side, including ex-Oregon LB Justin Flowe and defensive linemen Tyler Manoa (UCLA), Bill Norton (Georgia) and Orin Patu (Cal). The early freshmen enrollees include quarterback Brayden Dorman, running back Brandon Johnson, receivers Jackson Holman and Malachi Riley, offensive lineman Rhino Tapa’atouati and several defensive backs.

Position battles

With the return of 15 players who have combined for 126 starts at Arizona, the offense doesn’t have many starting spots to fill. The defense, on the other hand, is a different story.

“I would expect it to be nonstop competition on the defensive side to determine what that starting lineup will look like,” Fisch said. “You’ll see numerous rotations. Who’s starting at the defensive line with the first group, who’s starting at linebacker, what’s that look like? I think our secondary, our safety position will have great competition there. So I think the competition is real. I think there’ll be a lot of it on defense and on special teams.”

The only returners on defense with double-figure starts are defensive backs Gunner Maldonado (15) and Treydan Stukes, and both will be at different positions to start spring. Maldonado is moving to safety after being at nickel corner last season, while Stukes will be at nickel instead of field cornerback.

Sophomores Jacob Manu, who started the final six games at Will linebacker, and Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei, who started the last five at defensive tackle, are the most likely to retain a starting spot. Everything else appears to be wide open.

Offensively, Arizona needs a new right tackle with the graduation of Paiton Fears and a new Z receiver due. Fisch referred to the latter position as being “vacated,” in reference to Pac-12 receiving leader Dorian Singer transferring to USC.

“With that position available, I would expect a really good (competition),” Fisch said. “We’re gonna move Jacob Cowing over there initially, to see what that looks like, and Kevin Green will start in the slot for the first day. And then bounce around a little bit more, move Jacob back inside and watch (freshmen) Malachi Riley and Chris Hunter, AJ Jones. Jackson Holman is going to compete for the outside receiver, as well for the slot. We have a really good group of young receivers but none of them have that much playing time.”

Joe Borjon will be at right tackle to start spring, with Sam Langi at left tackle in Morgan’s absence. Tapa’atouati, Jacob Reece and even starting right guard Jonah Savaiinaea will also get looked at the tackle spots, though the competition won’t get decided until preseason camp since Arizona has three tackles (Tylen Gonzalez, Elijha Payne and Raymond Pulido) arriving in the summer.

De Laura’s next step

Quarterback Jayden de Laura was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2021, then in his first season with Arizona had the third-most passing yards in school history (3,685) with 29 total touchdowns. Yet when QBs in the league are discussed, de Laura is rarely mentioned.

“I want him to be talked about nationally, in the same way that the other six quarterbacks in the Pac-12 are being talked about right now,” Fisch said. “I think we finished sixth in the country passing. If there’s six quarterbacks in the Pac-12 of that are being talked about more than Jayden that doesn’t add up to me.”

Fisch said Arizona’s 5-7 record had a lot to do with de Laura’s lack of national buzz, but so did his turnovers (13 interceptions, four lost fumbles) and only 15 passing TDs in 54 trips to the red zone.

“We need to turn the ball over less,” Fisch said. “We need to throw more touchdowns. We need to not fumble the ball. And if he does those things he’ll be talked about with everybody, because if you do those things, you’re going to win more. And if you win more, that’s all anybody cares about when it comes to the national conversations.”

This will be the second year of coach and QB working together, and with that Fisch expects de Laura to take “an enormous step” like many of the other top passers in the Pac-12 did in 2022.

“Dorian (Thompson-Robinson) was in his fifth year (at UCLA) last year,” Fisch said. “Caleb (Williams) was with Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, and then went with Lincoln Riley to USC. Michael Penix was with Kalen DeBoer at Indiana, and then went to Washington. Cam Rising was going into his second or third year at Utah. These guys were all in their second and third years together. This was our first, we had one spring and fall coming off of a pretty bad year the year before and the year before and the year before that. So we had to build a lot of things up together. Now I feel like we’re in a place that we can now take this program and take this team and build it to even be better. and let Jayden really, really blossom.”