In many ways a spring game is like a Rorschach test.
Everyone literally sees the same thing, but what each person who watched takes from the scrimmage can vary wildly.
That’s what happens when a team plays against itself. Are big offensive plays a credit to that side of the ball’s skill or indicative of the defense’s lack of? Can you really be happy with turnovers when it’s your offense that put the ball on the ground?
Nevertheless, Arizona put on a pretty good show in front of announced 23,273 fans last Saturday and in the process showed that they have indeed come a long way from what we hope was rock bottom back in 2020.
More than 23k being on hand to watch was a testament to that.
But while what happened on the field doesn’t really matter much, if at all, what we saw on the field does.
We saw that Arizona is a talented team. More talented than the one that one five games last season, and certainly more talented than the teams that combined for a single victory between 2020 and 2021.
Offensively, this team is loaded.
They are set at quarterback, with depth.
They are loaded at running, with an embarrassment of depth.
They have a couple of top-tier receivers, who are backed up by some very talented prospects.
Their tight end room is, well, better than most.
Their offensive line — umm, we’ll have to circle back to that one, once it is truly set. And healthy.
As for the defense, it’s clear they have a couple things that have been lacking in recent years: size and speed.
Add it all up and you have what could be a pretty good team.
Indeed, for the first time since Jedd Fisch arrived there are legitimate expectations of at least making a bowl game. The schedule isn’t that bad, and it’s apparent that the roster is that good.
And with the transfer portal once again open, it could get even better.
What a time to be alive.
As the team heads into the summer it does so with a good amount of momentum. What is there to like?
They not only have a QB, but a really good one at that: Jayden de Laura is good, and is capable of being really good. It’s easy to forget that nine of his 13 interceptions last season came in three games, and also the fact that he was playing his first season in a system completely different than any he had played in before.
Now a year older and wiser, reports out of camp are that he has mastered the offense and bulked up, too. With the weapons he has at his disposal, a healthy de Laura should challenge for the school record for passing touchdowns in a season, which is currently 28.
Should he get hurt, Noah Fifita offers a level of comfort not often found in the backup.
Speaking of those weapons: Arizona has a ridiculous stable of running backs. Almost embarrassing, really. Most everyone in that room could be a quality starter for most teams, and yet they all combine to create one of the best groups in the country.
Michael Wiley can do it all. Jonah Coleman is an emerging star. DJ Williams is a load to bring down, Rayshon Luke is deserving of his “Speedy” nickname and yeah, the Cats have options.
Then at receiver Jacob Cowing is a stud, Tetaiora McMillan is a star and at least one from a group that includes Kevin Green Jr., Malachi Riley or A.J. Jones is likely to put up some big numbers this season. Or maybe one of the other young wideouts. There are options.
Add in the tight ends, where Tanner McClachlan and Keyon Burnett head a talented and diverse room, and who should the defense focus its attention on?
Focus on the run and Arizona can easily torch you through the air. Play coverage and favorable numbers in the box should lead to big holes to run through. Either way Arizona will have multiple ways to beat a defense. Or at least, it should.
Because the offensive line is a question mark: Arizona’s offensive line could be solid. It could also be a mess.
Jordan Morgan is penciled in at left tackle, and assuming he’s healthy and close to last season’s form the Cats are set. But those are big assumptions.
Josh Baker is fine at center and Wendell Moe figures to plug in at left guard. But what Arizona does at right guard and right tackle remains to be seen and, as a group, if the offensive line takes any kind of step back from last season the offense’s abilities will be curtailed.
The good news is Jonah Savaiinaea will be occupying one of the two up-for-grabs spots, and there are a handful of intriguing, if unproven, options already on the roster. Brennan Carroll’s group managed to keep de Laura upright and pave the way for an effective rushing attack last season, so given another year in the system and an infusion of talent one would have to think they should at least be passable in ‘23.
Speaking of passable, let’s talk about the defense: Had Arizona’s defense been close to average last season the Cats would have gone to a bowl game. But more often than not the group more closely resembled a turnstile than a door, especially against the run.
Not anymore. Or, rather, not anymore?
The transfer portal brought more size and athleticism to the front seven, and that was apparent during the spring game. Bill Norton, Tyler Manoa and recent addition Sio Nofoagatoto’a will take up plenty of space, while Justin Flowe and Daniel Heimuli bring a combination of size and athleticism that gives them as high a ceiling as the program has had for a linebacker in recent years.
The infusion of talent via the portal (and in recruiting) was necessary, and if the veterans can make good on their potential they should help lead a unit that was set to enjoy some organic improvement, too.
Think of all the young players who saw significant reps last season like Jacob Manu, Russell Davis II, Jacob Kongaika, Ephesians Prysock, Isaiah Taylor, Sterling Lane and Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei. They along with a handful of others flashed potential last season, and are now set for even larger roles due to departures as well as their own growth. The potential is present and exciting.
And that’s just it with this year’s team: Given the schedule posters, it appears this year’s theme is “Desert Fury.” It’s probably still personal, too, but as both the level of talent and expectations have risen, the vibe had to change with it.
Make no mistake, Arizona is still going into the season an underdog and making a bowl game would be a great accomplishment. The roster is littered with many “could bes” and “ifs”, and odds of everything going their way are slim.
But unlike previous seasons, there’s every reason to believe the Cats have the necessary ingredients to not only compete, but win more games than they lose.
It’s clear as can be.