At this point in Arizona football training camp the reports are generally the same.
“Player X is in the best shape of his career and poised for a big season” and “Player Y has taken a massive leap from the previous season” are common headlines or quotes. You’re also likely to learn that the roster is not only as deep as ever, but connected in a way that will help them play very much as a team.
It’s all good stuff, even if it doesn’t mean much.
The truth is this is the time of year where optimism should be abundant. No one has thrown a crushing interception, no one has missed an important tackle and, most importantly, no team has lost a game.
Unfortunately, none of that is likely to last, and in a similar fashion not all of what is being reported and/or promoted is going to carry over into the games that count. But as we’re now less than three weeks from the season-opening revenge game against NAU, let’s take a look at some of the intriguing story lines and figure out which you should buy and which you should sell.
Jayden de Laura’s step forward: Buy
His off-field issues notwithstanding, the bulk of the talk around de Laura has been about how he is stronger and more in tune with the team’s offense.
This makes sense.
De Laura didn’t come to Arizona as a true freshman so he already had some experience, but he was still young and learning an entirely new system. The idea that he has bulked up is an easy one to buy, as is the thought that more time in the system has created an even better QB.
He passed for 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns last season while rushing for four TDs. Improving on those numbers will be challenging, especially if Arizona has more leads and can run the ball effectively. Where de Laura can do better is with turnovers. He tossed 13 interceptions last season and a better grasp on the offense should cause that number to go down.
Keyan Burnett’s breakout season: Sell
A former 4-star recruit, Burnett had a rather quiet freshman season and the hope is that as a sophomore he will be ready to make a significant impact.
Don’t bet on it.
Not because Burnett lacks talent or has no kind of future ahead of him. The 6-foot-6 tight end figures to be a presence in the red zone and the stronger he gets, the more likely it is he will be on the field.
The reason you should not expect a big season from him is really because of the numbers. If Burnett is to get a lot of targets that means Tanner McClachlan, Jacob Cowing, Tetairoa McMillan, Montana Lemonious-Craig, Kevin Green Jr., A.J. Jones, Michael Wiley, Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke and Jonah Coleman are not seeing the football, and that’s just not going to be the case.
Does that mean Burnett will have no role this season? Of course not. He should easily surpass the three catches and 10 yards he amassed last season and he will surely reach the end zone for the first time in his career. And he is an injury or two away from an increased role.
But to expect anything more than modest production from a player who has ample proven competition for targets, on a team that would like to run the ball more, would be misguided.
An improved front seven: Buy
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but up, but Arizona’s defensive front underwent quite the makeover in the offseason. The transfer portal was especially bountiful, with Taylor Upshaw, Sio Nofoagatoto’a, Bill Norton, Tyler Manoa, Justin Flowe, Daniel Heimuli and Orin Patu all coming aboard. The group offers an intriguing mix of potential and production.
Add that group to the returners, many of whom played last year as freshmen, and a freshman class that has some talent and it’s understandable why defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen is confident the rotation will be deep.
It’s worth noting that it’s one thing to have depth in sheer numbers and another to have depth in quality options. Arizona seems to have both, and while it may take a bit of time to develop a true rotation there’s no reason why the ‘Cats shouldn’t be able to mix and match their way to better play in the box.
Dorian who?: Buy
Dorian Singer was excellent for Arizona last season. There’s no sense in denying that he was a reliable target all over the field and his ability to make acrobatic catches was unmatched.
But while his loss stung, it probably won’t mean much for the offense. At least, that’s the expectation.
The Cats have one of the deepest receiver rooms in the nation. Cowing and T-Mac are two of the best wideouts in the conference, if not the country, and the addition of Lemonious-Craig gave the team another proven, big option. Further down the depth chart you have Jones, who has reportedly had a good camp, and Green.
There’s more receivers who could see the ball come their way, but to list them would be to run out of room on the page. Arizona is incredibly deep at the position.
When it comes to Singer, the goal isn’t to replace the player but instead his production, and the team should have no trouble doing that.