When last we saw Arizona on a football field facing another team, it was hoisting up the Territorial Cup for the first time since 2016. That was more than nine months ago, and though there have been no games since then the Wildcats have stayed busy trying to keep the program rebuild going.
The UA added a dozen transfers from other FBS programs, mostly of the power-conference variety, as well as another solid recruiting class that included prospects previously committed to Alabama and Utah, among others. The defense has been overhauled, while the offense brings back almost all the production from a 2022 unit that was among the best in the country.
Now comes the chance to see if all that offseason work has paid off when Arizona opens the 2023 season against NAU on Saturday night. It will also be a chance for the current squad to avenge one of the worst losses in program history, a 21-19 setback to the Lumberjacks in 2021 during the 20-game losing streak.
“It’s been a long 31 days and a good 31 days, but you get to a point where you’re tired of practicing and you want to play,” head coach Jedd Fisch said. “And that’s where they’re at right now.”
Here’s what to watch for when the UA and NAU meet up at Arizona Stadium:
Newcomers in action
Arizona released its first depth chart on Thursday, and of the 58 players listed there are 15 who joined the program this offseason. That includes two projected starters on offense and four on defense, with another seven UA newcomers listed as defensive backups.
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen plans to use as many as nine guys on the defensive line, if not more, in order to keep those big bodies fresh, so fans will need to be regularly checking their game programs to figure out all the new faces on that side of the ball.
Raymond Pulido is the only true freshman slated to start, taking the right guard spot that Jonah Savaiinaea (now at right tackle) held down all of last year en route to being named a Freshman All-American. Five other true freshmen are on the depth chart, and all could make their collegiate debuts against NAU.
Records could fall
While so much attention is being paid to the new players on Arizona’s roster, particularly on defense, the return of nine offensive starters could make for some big numbers on the scoreboard in this opener.
Jayden de Laura will be the first quarterback to start back-to-back openers for the UA since Khalil Tate in 2018-19, and he has two of his top three receivers back from a year ago in Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan while adding Colorado transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig. And all four ball carriers from 2022 have also returned, with Michael Wiley leading the charge of what should be a strong emphasis on running the ball this season.
The most rushing yards the UA has posted in a season opener is 506, against NAU in 2017, and the Wildcats are coming off a 280-yard ground performance against ASU in the Territorial Cup that was the most gained under Fisch.
Arizona’s most points in the Fisch era is 43, last October against Colorado, when de Laura tied the school record with six touchdown passes and the Wildcats recorded the sixth-most yards (673) in school history. The Wildcats haven’t topped the 50-point mark since beating NAU 65-41 in 2019, while the most points in a season opener is 70 against Idaho in 2008.
No official line is out yet for the game, since spreads for games involving FCS teams generally aren’t released until 24 hours before kickoff, but if Arizona were to win by 30 or more it would be it’s largest margin of victory since a 62-31 win over Southern Utah in 2018.
From a individual standpoint, Cowing enters this season as the FBS active leader in receiving yards with 3,629. That ranks him 50th all-time, but with a 100-yard game—he had four last year, including 152 in his UA debut—would jump him into the top 40.
As of Thursday there were more than 45,000 tickets sold for the opener, keeping in play the possibility of Arizona Stadium selling out all 50,800 seats for the opener. If that happened it would be the first season-opening sellout since 2006.
“I hope fans out there are ready to jump, all in,” athletic director Dave Heeke said Wednesday. “It’s time to be all in. That is really the next step for this football program, is making this stadium, Arizona Stadium, rock. Making this the best homefield advantage.”
The UA sold out the loss to Oregon last October, the first sellout since 2014 and the first time topping 50,000 at home since the 2018 Territorial Cup.
Maybe some fans on the fence about going will show up to see Arizona’s latest honorary captains: quarterback Nick Foles and defensive lineman Rob Waldrop.
Join us in welcoming back, !— Arizona Football (@ArizonaFBall) August 29, 2023
A standout defensive lineman, All-American and College Football Hall of Famer is back this weekend as one of your Honorary Captains. pic.twitter.com/x7hQ5P3Nuo
“To have him back here, it’s awesome,” Fisch said of the 34-year-old Foles, who is currently a free agent after playing for the Indianapolis Colts. “And it’s great for our crowd. It’s great for fans. His wife was an athlete here as well.
“And then with Rob coming back, now you’re talking about another Hall of Famer. We’ve made a huge emphasis on bringing attention to the players in Arizona they have made the College Football Hall of Fame. There’s only four of them and three of them are very active in our program, so to get Rob to come back as well.”