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What to watch for when Arizona football opens preseason training camp

The preparation for Year 3 has begun

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-training-camp-preview-position-battles-2023-jordan-morgan-akina Arizona Athletics

A month from today, Arizona will open the 2023 season at home against NAU. It will provide an opportunity for the Wildcats to avenge one of the lowest points in program history, a 21-19 loss to the Lumberjacks in September 2021 during a school-record 20-game losing streak.

That embarrassing loss, and plenty other bad ones, came during Jedd Fisch’s first season in charge, what he’s referred to as Year Zero. This is Year 3, and training camp for that third season begins Wednesday morning.

Arizona was picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 this season, its highest predicted finish since 2018. Vegas oddsmakers put the Wildcats’ win total at 5.5 games, an indication the first bowl game since 2017 is within reach.

For the first time in a while, the buzz around the UA is more positive than negative, but Fisch said that won’t last if his team doesn’t put in the work.

“When it comes to our team, going into this season, we’ve talked about really two words, and it’s earn it,” Fisch said. “Earn the conversation. Earn what people are saying right now currently about you. People are beginning to talk about Arizona football in a different light. You’ve got to earn that. You’ve got to show and prove it, really, that you’re worth the conversation.”

Only five of Arizona’s training camp practices are open to the public, the first of which is Friday at 10 a.m. when the team will don shells (helmets and shoulder pads) after practicing in helmets only on Wednesday and Thursday. Full pads will come into play next week, with scrimmages on tap Aug. 12 and 19 in Arizona Stadium.

Here’s what to look for during fall camp:

Familiar faces on offense, a (nearly) all-new defense

Depending on how the final steps of Jordan Morgan’s rehab from knee surgery goes (more on that below), Arizona could have as many as 10 players who started on offense in the final month of the 2022 season doing the same to open the 2023 campaign. That’s almost unheard of in the current state of college football, where roster overhaul has become an annual occasion.

Jayden de Laura gives the Wildcats a returning starter at quarterback for the first time since Khalil Tate in 2019, while running back Michael Wiley is one of six offensive players who started at least 10 games a year ago. And though the UA lost leading receiver Dorian Singer, who is now at USC, it returns 69.4 percent of the receiving yardage (including 20 of 26 touchdown catches) and all but 11 rushing yards.

And that’s from a unit that ranked 20th nationally in total offense, sixth in passing and ninth in plays of 20-plus yards. Throw in an offensive line room that returns 40 starts from a year ago and you’ve got the makings for another potent attack.

But for as much continuity as there is on offense, Arizona’s defense is a completely different story. And by choice.

While there are seven returners with starting experience at the UA, no more than three or four will start this fall and maybe not even that many. That’s because the Wildcats overhauled that side of the ball, adding a dozen FBS or junior college transfers along with another dozen prep recruits.

The result: a much deeper (and bigger) roster in an effort to improve on a defense that was at or near the bottom in the Pac-12 in almost every statistical category.

“We’ve got over 25 players over 300 pounds on our team right now, which is completely different than when I walked in the door two years ago,” Fisch said. “It’s pretty nice to see the size of our team and the change in our team. And then I’d say the offseason with Coach (Tyler) Owens and his strength staff, they’ve gotten faster, they’ve gotten stronger, and now they’re ready to go out and compete.”

All told, Arizona’s roster gained 994 pounds during the offseason, Fisch said. Or the equivalent of one saltwater crocodile, for those looking for perspective.

Position battles

With all the new blood on defense will come plenty of competition for starting gigs, with Fisch identifying safety as a “wide open battle.” Also up for grabs will be a linebacker spot, every position on the defensive line, one offensive lineman opening and the third (Z) wide receiver.

“I would say that we’re going to we have a great competition for the Z wide receiver spot,” he said. “Very confident in TMac and Jacob (Cowing), but as you guys all know, we play with three wide receivers.”

Singer’s spot on the outside was occupied by Cowing during much of the spring, but since then Arizona added Colorado transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig, who as a top contender for the Z would push Cowing back inside. Though not necessarily.

“I think it may move Jacob a little bit more into the slot, but I also believe that Jacob proved to us as a staff in the spring that he can play to the outside,” receivers coach Kevin Cummings said. “So I think that adds more versatility to our offense, to where you can’t just key in on Jacob in the slot.”

Arizona’s top three receivers logged 2,294 of 2,402 snaps last season, which Cummings said is a testament to the strength and conditioning staff for keeping that trio healthy. He said if three wideouts clearly separate themselves from the pack the same scenario will unfold this fall, though ideally going deeper is the goal.

“If we feel like there’s three guys that are the best guys they’ll play the most,” Cummings said. “If we feel like we have some depth, which I think we do this year, then we can find some more rotation.”

Redshirt freshmen Kevin Green Jr. and AJ Jones figure to be in the mix for snaps, as do true freshmen such as Jackson Holman, Malachi Riley, Carlos Wilson and Devin Hyatt.

Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said the open right guard position would likely be contested between returners Sam Langi and Leif Magnuson and true freshman Raymond Pulido, the 4-star prospect Arizona flipped from Alabama earlier this year. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder “looks the part,” Fisch said, and is Morgan’s future successor at left tackle, but if Morgan is good to go for the opener and Jonah Savaiinaea remains at right tackle (after starting last season at right guard) Pulido will begin his college career on the interior.

The defensive line, where there are 24 guys battling for four jobs, it’s a mix of veteran transfers—Tyler Manoa, Bill Norton, Sio Nofoagatoto’a and Taylor Upshaw, to name a few—against youngsters like Jacob Kongaika, Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei and Isaiah Ward, as well as the ‘Deuces,’ Russell Davis II and Sterling Lane II.

“Having these body types and have the athletes that we’re recruiting, it’s going to create a lot of competition,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “So it’s wide open. We don’t have ones and twos, we’re going to use colors. So it’s gonna be a blue group, a yellow group, a white group, and then maybe two weeks from now we’ll know exactly who’s going to be our starters.”

Jordan Morgan’s carefully curated training regimen

Just over eight months removed from knee surgery, following his season-ending injury on a non-contact play at UCLA last November, Jordan Morgan has been fully cleared to participate in fall camp. That puts him on schedule to return to the lineup for the opener, as long as he makes it through the detailed preseason plan Arizona’s training staff has put together for him.

“I would say he’s 100 percent, but he won’t receive 100 percent of the reps,” Fisch said, noting that the 4-week program Morgan will go through will often call for him to skip certain drills or even an entire practice as he gets ramped up to full speed.

“It looks like a NASA launch to get this guy to his destination, but it’s a really good plan and they’ll take great care of them,” Carroll said. “We’re not in any rush. We’ve got plenty of time. He’s not going to be ready for a game tomorrow.”

Morgan, who opted not to enter the 2023 NFL Draft so he could get in another full season of tape for the scouts, feels grateful for all the support he’s gotten.

“The training staff, strength staff, they’ve been behind me this whole thing 100 percent,” he said. “No one let up. Everyone’s just been focused, so I feel like all of that just really helped me.”

Coaching shuffle

When Arizona brought back veteran assistant Duane Akina it was with the anticipation that the NCAA would pass legislation to allow analysts to coach on the field and during games. That didn’t happen, but a Plan B ended up manifesting in the form of a bum knee on one of the Wildcats’ other coaches.

Defensive line coach Ricky Hunley had his left knee replaced, which knocked him out for a lot of spring ball and is still keeping him from being as mobile as he’d like to be. Because of that, he’s being temporarily reassigned to a “senior defensive assistant role” while Akina (whose background is in the secondary) will take over his spot as an on-field coach.

Fisch said the move is just for this season, with Hunley still involved in recruiting. As for the D-line, outside linebackers coach Jason Kaufusi will handle the entire front four while Nansen, who also coaches the linebackers, will also contribute to coaching the line.

Akina, 66, is in his second stint with Arizona. He was on Dick Tomey’s staff from 1987-2000, coaching defensive backs most of the time but also serving as offensive coordinator from 1991-95. He was at Texas from 2001-13, then Stanford from 2014-22.

Raised expectations

Fisch, who often refers to the “build” of the program, was asked Tuesday what stage of the construction his third season would be. That led him to bring up a time he quoted Lute Olson prior to the first Bear Down Friday, the pep rally held on University Blvd. the day before home games.

“I said ‘get your tickets now, because in three years from now hopefully we’ll be sold out,’” Fisch said. “Hopefully we’re getting close to that. It’s been certainly a build. We talked about it, the first year of laying the foundation we called year zero. We talked last year about the build and what we were trying to get accomplished. And now this year, I believe we’re at a place where we have a good football team.”

Fisch pointed to Arizona’s continued inroads on the recruiting trail, particularly within Arizona, hinting at the recent commitments of 5-star Tucson edge Elijah Rushing and Monday’s pledge from 4-star Chandler quarterback Demond Williams Jr., as a good indication the foundation laid is supporting what he’s trying to build.

“We feel like we’ve made a great impact in the state when it comes to recruiting,” he said. “People want to stay at home. People want to come here. The state of Arizona, for the first time in a very long time, wants to send their players in state to the University of Arizona. That’s huge. So we’ve made the strides we’ve wanted to make so far, but we recognize we still have a long way to go in being able to get to a bowl game, to compete for a championship and be a top 25 team. But that is our goal, and that is our plan moving forward. And as we continue to bring in better players every single year, I think we’re going to get that done.”