Nine months after playing its last real game, and almost four weeks since beginning training camp, Arizona can finally see the proverbial sun on the horizon. The 2023 season opener against NAU on Saturday night is just around the corner.
“It’s good that camp is over,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said to open his first weekly press conference of the fall. “It’s good that we’re no longer hitting one another, and we have now an opportunity to be in game week.”
Fisch said he was happy to see college football back on TV last weekend, when a handful of Week Zero games aired including UMass (which has eight ex-Wildcats on former UA defensive coordinator Don Brown’s roster) winning at New Mexico to snap a 24-game road losing streak. Now he’s ready to be a part of it himself.
“It’s going to be amazing,” he said. “I believe we’ll have a great crowd. Sounds like we’re over 44,000 (tickets sold) or something like that right now. I know Zona Zoo passes are up 1,500 from last year, I think they’re close to about 7,000. So that’s pretty exciting stuff. We’ve talked about for two years, can we get to this year three and make it a sell out season? So that’s our goal.”
Here’s what else Fisch discussed Monday:
On the team’s health: “Everybody’s healthy. I would expect that 85 scholarship players will be ready to go. All 85 players are ready. And we’re expecting to have a battle on Saturday. We had one a couple of years ago.”
On NAU, and how the teams look compared to in 2021: “I think our team is a little different than it was a couple of years ago. I know their team is different. It seems as if there’s been a lot of transfers that have come and gone on both programs. But as you continue to watch their tape, what you do know is their head coach is and outstanding defensive coach. I’ve known Coach (Chris) Ball for a while. He’s been a Pac-12 defensive coordinator. And they brought in a new defensive coordinator from BYU (Kevin Clune) who has also done a great job defensively over his time, whether that be at Oregon State, whether that be BYU and other places. And then they have the same offense coordinator, Coach (Aaron) Pflugrad, that was there two years ago. I think he has some history with some of our coaches. It’ll be a good battle Saturday night, but our team is certainly excited about the opportunity to get back out on the field and do a great job at home.”
If the loss to NAU was when he fully realized the depth of Arizona’s woes: “Each week you learn a little bit more about your team, where they’re at as a program. Certainly, the last game in 2020, before we arrived, we recognized that this program was not in a good spot. And then you start losing a couple of the best players that played in that game ... with (Gary) Brightwell going to the NFL, and (Roy) Lopez going to the NFL. And then really the rest of the team that was back lived that loss, and then lived a bunch of losses throughout their college careers. I certainly realized what a rebuild it was going to be. We talked about all year long, we called it Year Zero for a reason. We felt like we had to strip it down to the studs, start building it back up. I felt last year we made good progress in the build. And in that process of trying to get better every single week. Finished winning two out of last three last year, finished with some really good football players on the roster and then added some more good players. So I do believe we’re in a good spot this year going into this game, and recognizing that two years ago, it’s certainly a different team.”
On what he remembers from after that game: “I remember that I knew that we had to find a way to get better fast. And we had to put that game behind us, as we have to put all games behind us that we don’t win. And I think the rest of the night went into watching film and evaluating our talent and making decisions on what type of team we have. How resilient a player is. Are they willing to just see this game as one of 12 on the schedule? And were they able to find a way to come back and play extremely hard for next week, which they did. We spent our focus on that that evening and all the other evenings.”
On if the NAU loss was hard to move past: “You get to a point that there is this lingering black cloud over the program, a losing streak. We didn’t win games that we thought either A, we could have won, or B people expected us to win. Unless you’re in that locker room, unless you realize where we’re at, we were rebuilding it all. And now I think we’re in a place that we have done a good job as a program. Our coaches have done a great job of bringing in good talent, and our players have done a great job of learning our system. They’ve done a great job of taking care of their bodies. Our training room was packed today, of guys just getting ready for game week. And I just love the players’ attitude right now.”
On LT Jordan Morgan: “Good to go. So, Jordan is fully medically cleared. And I expect Jordan to play at a very high level. He’s used this time, of his rehabilitation, to get more football smart. He really did a ton of studying and tape, he used this time to even improve his upper body strength even more than it was prior. And obviously he was one of the strongest guys on our team before he got hurt. But he had a huge focus on how strong he could get. He used this time to really take care of himself and get his life in a spot where now the focus is on football, and I’m excited to see Jordan out there.”
On remaining position battles: “I think that there’s a lot of good battles out there right now. I think the wide receiver battle is still going. Who the third receiver is going to be, who the fourth receiver is going to be, who the fifth receiver is going to be. Those guys are battling every snap. I thought Montana (Lemonious-Craig) had a really, really good last week in camp. I would say that the running backs are constantly battling, whether that be Jonah Coleman going in second, DJ (Williams) going in second, Speedy (Luke) going in second. And really do they all have just their own little packages, or do we continue to let them just continue to compete and then see where Mike (Wiley) is? I would say that the battle is going on every day in terms of the defensive line rotation. There is about seven to eight, maybe nine guys that are rotating through on a consistent basis. The linebacker battle between Jacob Manu, Daniel Heimuli and Justin Flowe is going on daily. And then we’ve got four safeties competing to play for two. We have depth we haven’t had here in while, and that has made it a lot of fun to be out at practice every day because there’s a lot of competition.”
NOTE: Arizona’s first depth chart is expected to be released Thursday.
On LB Justin Flowe: “He’s probably one of the most explosive players that we’ve had here, probably the most explosive player that we’ve had here. He’s in an elite category in regards to his ability to run and hit, his ability to make plays on the ball, his ability to see a ball carrier, close the distance and explode through a guy. What Justin is learning is the system, and he’s learning how to play within the system. He’s had three different defensive systems in three years, and he’s continuing to now get another system thrown at him, and what are the adjustments. And as a linebacker, you’re responsible for being the play caller, so to speak, right? So you’re the one that asked to make formation adjustments and make decisions on the sets and what goes on around you. So he’s working through that. But as a player, I think there’s no question about his explosiveness and his energy that he brings.”
On LB Daniel Heimuli: “Daniel has been very smooth every day. He kind of walks in the building, he knows what he has to do. He’s been very aware of his responsibilities, of knowing the defense, of making good calls in terms of, as the guy that’s setting the front, as the guy that’s making the decision regarding the force. He’s been excellent at that. He’s been very poised as a linebacker, and he has really helped both the young secondary behind him and the D line in front of him getting the right defensive call. Daniel, Jacob and Justin all will have roles.”
On who will get the No. 1 jerseys: “Right now I think number one is going to remain retired. No one really wanted 1. I think they’re all content with the numbers that they got. There’s some guys that are coming in and might want 1, there’s some guys that I think on the roster they want 1. One goes to a starter, so we’re just gonna hold on right now. And if something changes I will let you know.”
On addressing the gambling issues popping up in college sports: “We’ve brought in speakers regarding gambling. We brought in a former FBI agent regarding gambling, to talk about how it gets monitored, and to how aware you must be. We brought the chief security officer of the university in to speak to our team. We brought in general managers for NFL teams to talk about how it works in that league. So we’ve made a very clear-cut decision how we must educate our players. I saw what Kirk Ferentz said, I’ve seen what other guys have said in Iowa and Alabama and beyond. That is a strange situation. But I will tell you that we have constantly reminded our players that you just can’t gamble. Just don’t try to figure out a way to do it. Don’t try to figure out, well, what if it’s UFC fighting, or what if it’s blackjack or whatever? Just don’t do it, and if you don’t do it, you got a great chance of not ever getting in trouble for doing it.”
On not stopping the clock after every first down: “Oh, I love the new clock rules. I wish we just did the NFL timing and just do that. I think the NFL’s got it figured on a lot of levels. I still don’t understand why we fight that sometimes. I wish we put the field the same way, I wish the hashmarks were the same and the timing was the same, but we’re getting there. The average play numbers (in Week Zero) were down from like 68 to 65 or something like that, which is good. Who wants to sit through a 3-hour, 45-minute football game? Sit through a 3-hour and 7-minute football game and enjoy every minute of it. And I think that’s what we need. We need the games to go about 3 hours and 10 minutes and go the next one. And if we could do that, and we get the timing right, I think that’s gonna be great for everybody. It’s gonna be great for the fans. It’s gonna be great for you guys and be great for us. I don’t think we’d miss much by not stopping the clock on every first down, or some of the other things that they’ve adjusted. But that’s the biggest difference is that we can actually just keep playing, the clock can keep running.”
On Don Brown and former Arizona players winning with UMass: “Super cool. I thought that was great. I think we had eight guys on our (2022) team that have that are over there now. It’s a great opportunity for those guys, they have chances to go play and be involved in the games and in their 2-deep. And that’s awesome for them, and a great win. I texted Coach Brown yesterday, congratulating him on the win. I watched a lot of the game, not all of it but, most of it. I love that (Anthony Simpson) got the first touchdown on a fly sweep. I saw the little RPO that he caught, it was good to see that. I think Tyler Martin, he was blitzing, the first interception he was clean off the edge, he forced them to throw an interception. I thought that was awesome. I’m really happy for Tyler and his family. They’re great people. All together and that was an awesome for UMass, and I was really happy to see that.”