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Arizona football training camp: Wildcats go off script in penalty-filled scrimmage

arizona-wildcats-preseason-football-training-camp-scrimmage-penalties-defense-nau-2023-season-opener Arizona Athletics

Saturday night’s scrimmage under the lights inside Arizona Stadium was billed as a “first look” for fans interested in a preview of what the Wildcats would look like in a few weeks when the 2023 season gets underway. With that in mind, UA coach Jedd Fisch said everything about the 90-minute practice was scripted to allow him and his staff to evaluate the team in as many situations and scenarios as possible.

What wasn’t in the script were 20 penalties.

“Obviously the penalties were the biggest concern for me tonight,” Fisch said afterward. “We had 10 penalties on offense, eight on defense, two in the kicking game. It was a great wake up call. They know it now, and they’ll talk about that, and the leaders in (the locker room) talked about it. That is not the standard, or the expectation.”

Arizona averaged only 5.4 penalties per game last season, which ranked in the top 40 in FBS, after finishing last in the Pac-12 in 2022 with 8.8 per game. Many of the miscues Saturday night may have been the result of the scripted nature of the scrimmage, with the previous play’s outcome not always dictating down and distance—or defensive alignment—on the ensuing snap.

“All of a sudden, there’s a little bit louder music, you’re in the stadium, you got different situations, you’re not paying attention to the yard markers,” Fisch said. “You don’t realize, oh it went from 2nd and 5 to 3rd and 10, now you’re peeking, you’re looking, you’re moving your feet, and you’re not disciplined.”

When flags weren’t being thrown and plays weren’t being prematurely whistled dead, the offense flowed well and moved the ball. Not all offensive units were eligible to tackled, with Fisch noting that made it hard to tell in real time if a play resulted in a 3-yard gain or a 30-yard gain, but overall the 500 or so fans who showed up saw a unit that looks to be as good (if not better) than a year ago.

It truly was a “first look” for those watching Arizona’s revamped defense, which could have as many as eight new starters from the group that was at or near the bottom in the conference in every statistical category in 2022.

“It’s coming along,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “Last year it was a lot of new, because before then it was a man free type of defense where you just covered a guy. Now we’re playing more of a zone, so there’s a lot of teaching and there’s a lot of learning, checks and things like that. So I like where we’re at. Am I pleased? No, there’s a lot of things we need to work on, too many penalties tonight. That’s not going to help us. Our technique’s got to be clean. But the one thing I like, we’re playing with great effort, so I like where we’re at.”

A couple guys who stood out were redshirt freshman edge rusher Isaiah Ward, true freshman safety Genesis Smith and transfer cornerback Dylan Wyatt.

Ward appeared in three games late last season, and at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds he’s going to be massively outweighed by opposing offensive tackles. Nansen said that will be a challenge for him, but his speed and quickness could make up for that.

“If you see the way we structure the defense, he’s really lining up where we think the best pass rusher on our team is at, and that’s the position he’s playing right now,” Nansen said.

Nansen said that Smith has benefitted greatly from Arizona adding veteran assistant Duane Akina to the coaching staff, and that he’s expected to contribute right away. And Wyatt could end up starting opposite sophomore Ephesians Prysock at corner after coming to the UA from Cal Poly in the summer.

“He’s like a coach on the field,” Nansen said. “He’s one of those guys, you tell him in the film room, he’ll get it done on the field. He’s been around a lot of good coaches, he was highly recommended by one of the coaches that I used to work with, so I knew exactly what we were getting.”

Keynodo Hudson, who is now cornerbacks coach at Ole Miss, was a graduate assistant at USC when Nansen was with the Trojans. Hudson was a defensive backs coach in 2019-20 at Illinois, where Wyatt began his college career.

Arizona officially ends training camp on Sunday, when Fisch said the team will go through a 90-minute practice in helmets to go over corrections that came out of the scrimmage. Following an off day Monday, the first day of the fall semester, the Wildcats will switch to preparing for the Sept. 3 opener against NAU.

“We’re gonna get after it pretty good,” he said.