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Arizona football training camp: First scrimmage sets bar for remainder of preseason

7 practices left before Wildcats shift focus to NAU

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-training-camp-jedd-fisch-scrimmage-speedy-luke-celestine-2023 Arizona Athletics

Arizona reached the midpoint of preseason training camp on Saturday with the first of two planned scrimmages. A sparse crowd inside Arizona Stadium witnessed the Wildcats run 135 plays, including special teams snaps, with pretty much everyone on the roster getting on the field for a look.

“We played everybody, that was our plan today, we wanted to see as many reps as you could,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “Just wanted to get a lot of people on tape. It was a matter of how can we see as much football as we can see, to help our guys be wherever they want to be, and see where we feel like they fit in best. A lot of young, some veteran transfer guys that we haven’t seen tackled very much. A lot of things we can correct on film.”

Starting quarterback Jayden de Laura was 13 of 17 for 186 yards and a touchdown, connecting on a 37-yard TD pass to tight end Keyan Burnett, while Noah Fifita threw two TDs along with an interception (and nearly had a second ball picked by edge Taylor Upshaw) and both Brayden Dorman and walk-on Cole Tannenbaum threw TD passes while being live for defenders to hit them.

Four UA running backs scored on the ground, while Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke had a TD catch and a 67-yard run after taking a handoff from the end zone.

“I think that offensively, we had a lot of good ballplayers today, especially are ones, and then I feel like overall second half of the scrimmage, the defense came back,” Fisch said.

Defensively, Upshaw and Isaiah Ward logged sacks and Jai-Ayviauynn ‘G7’ Celestine recorded an interception.

Arizona will hold its second scrimmage, billed as a “first look” at the 2023 squad, at 6:30 p.m. MST Saturday inside the stadium. That’s one of seven remaining camp practices, one of four in full pads, before the UA switches over to game-week mode ahead of the Sept. 2 opener against NAU.

“We need to really use this week as our week to get technique, fundamentals and toughness down,” Fisch said. “In terms of what we’ve put in, we’re where we want to be. In terms of our installations, in terms of our execution, we could always be better. I think that our guys have a much better feel of the offense and the defense this year than they did a year ago. I think that’s showing up. I would say defensively, they’re in year two of the system. They’re still working out some of the changes, but you can see them playing faster. And that’s really what I’m looking for at camp.”

Luke, who saw limited action as a true freshman before and after missing time due to ankle surgery, showed off his impressive speed by getting around the edge on a snap from the 1 and then outracing the defense before Gunner Maldonado chased him down. He is a weapon Arizona wants to get involved in whatever manner possible, Fisch said, as long as Luke limits his mistakes.

“The biggest thing with Speedy is ... you can only play if you protect the football,” Fisch said. “So if the ball’s on the ground at practice, the ball’s on the ground in different plays and different situations it’s much harder to play you. So for Speedy, he’s taking great pride and said hey, I’m gonna take care of the ball. I can pass protect. And of course when I have the ball in open space, I can go. We have to make sure that there’s a trust factor between he and everyone on that offense that he’s gonna be able to lift up the offense in the way that he’s shown today that he can do.”

Fisch said Luke is one of four “bodies” that will start getting a lot of work at kick returner, a gig that’s up for grabs. Another is Celestine, who had a long runback but also fumbled on a punt return.

“We can be a really good team, a good team, an average team or a not so good team depending how many times we turn the ball over this year,” Fisch said.

While the plan remains to rotate as many guys as possible in the front seven on defense, which was on display Saturday when the personnel changed regularly within the same series, that may end up needing to be the case in the secondary as well. Fisch said the safety competition remains wide open, with five players—Maldonado, Dalton Johnson, Isaiah Taylor, DJ Warnell and true freshman Genesis Smith—battling for two spots.

“Guys are constantly trying to figure out who’s going to be our field safety, our boundary safety,” Fisch said. “Do we need to play more than two guys, do we need to rotate them in? Do we keep them fresher that way? Because right now none of them have really separated themselves to become the one, the top guy. And no one has separated themselves and dropped off the list. So no one’s bottomed out and no one’s hit that ceiling yet.

“Good thing we got three more weeks (before the season opener) because right now, I don’t know who we would start.”