Arizona completed spring practice on Saturday with the Spring Game, a fan-friendly exhibition that drew a school-record 23,273 fans to the stadium on an April afternoon. They got to see the early workings of the third iteration of the Wildcats under Jedd Fisch, who was happy with what he saw from the game and the 14 practices prior to it.
“I feel the offense picked up where they left off,” Fisch said. “And I feel like the defense made one of the bigger jumps that I’ve ever seen, that I’ve sat through.”
Here’s what we learned about the UA during spring ball:
This is Jayden de Laura’s offense
De Laura arrived from Washington State in January 2022 and was all but anointed the starting quarterback upon arrival. He did nothing to dispel that expectation last spring, though he admits it was much more about learning everything Arizona than anything else.
This spring? Ownership.
“I feel like I’ve done way better than I did last spring,” he said. “I feel way more comfortable compared to last season and this spring.”
Late last season, as de Laura was on his way to throwing for the third-most yards in UA history (3,685), Fisch mentioned that his quarterback had earned the right to shake off a play call if he thought he saw a better option. That continued in the Spring Game when he threw a touchdown pass to Tanner McLachlan.
“The touchdown play, I kind of waved Coach Jimmy (Dougherty’s) play call and I called that play myself,” de Laura said. “They’re just trusting me now that I’m pretty much own this offense. I can coach it up myself.”
Asked what his biggest takeaway was from the spring, Fisch pointed to de Laura’s improved maturity.
“It’s probably the most impressive part of the whole thing,” he said.
DeLaura said he plans to spend May in Huntington Beach, Calif. at 3DQB, a quarterback training facility run by former ASU passer Taylor Kelly and ex-BYU QB John Beck.
The defense has a lot more options
Throughout spring ball, defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen tried out at least a dozen different 7- or 11-man units as he and his assistants test out all of the newcomers to that side of the ball. And there were a lot of them.
Arizona went heavy on defense in the NCAA transfer portal, adding defensive linemen from Cal (Orin Patu), Georgia (Bill Norton) and UCLA (Tyler Manoa) as well as ex-Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe and former Washington LB Daniel Heimuli.
“We have a lot of new faces,” Fisch said of his defense, which only returns 36 starts from 2022.
Flowe was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2020 recruiting class but injuries limited him to 12 games in three seasons with the Ducks. With Arizona, he’s in line to start alongside Jacob Manu on the second level, and he considers himself “blessed” for the second chance he’s gotten with the Wildcats.
“I feel like this year is going to be crazy,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
Arizona’s revamped defense was on display early in the Spring Game, forcing a pair of fumbles on the first three possessions. The first saw nickel corner Treydan Stukes force and recover the ball as another Wildcat was grabbing at tight end Tanner McLachlan’s ankles and Flowe flew in to try to assist on the tackle.
“That’s the new Zona, and we love it,” Flowe said. “All 11 guys went to the ball. We’re gonna try to bring it all, and we’re gonna try to get the ball out every time.”
Arizona forced 13 fumbles last season, second-most in the Pac-12, and its 12 recoveries were tied for first in the conference.
There are still holes to fill
After starting all 12 games at right guard as a true freshman, Jonah Savaiinaea spent most of spring at right tackle. Fisch wouldn’t commit to that being where Savaiinaea would be to start preseason training camp, when left tackle Jordan Morgan is projected to be back in action and the duo of Joe Borjon and Sam Langi could compete for the RT spot if Savaiinaea were moved back to RG.
“We’ll play Jonah at the best spot for Jonah,” Fisch said. “He’s an All-American player. He’s an NFL player, and we’ll make sure that Jonah gets taken care of and he’s able to lead us up front.”
The Wildcats offered Wyoming transfer guard Emmanuel Pregnon on Saturday, and if he were to come on board it would probably lock Savaiinaea in at RT. Fisch said Wednesday that Arizona would only look to add transfers who could help the 2023 team, and Pregnon started 11 games last season for the Cowboys.
The defensive line could also use some more help, despite all the additions already (and the impending arrival of several more signees in June). Nansen wants to be able to rotate up front, something he was able to do down the stretch last year after Uiagalelei and fellow freshman Jacob Kongaika were up to speed.
Another safety wouldn’t hurt either, though, as well as someone to specialize in punt or kickoff returns.
“We have four scholarships open, so there’s always some things that can happen there that can help our football team get better,” Fisch said.
FWIW, on Sunday afternoon Fisch tweeted out a GIF of a woman signing ‘transfer,’ which has been his code for Arizona landing someone from the portal, so stay tuned.