Arizona has been here before.
You know, 2-1 after a solid-if-unspectacular non-conference slate, opening the Pac-12 schedule with a road game in the Bay Area against an opponent who is probably not as good as if is
Last year the Cats fell to Cal, which won all of a single game the rest of the season. Coincidentally it came against Stanford, who Arizona is facing this weekend.
Cal wasn’t good last season and Stanford isn’t any good this season (or last season, really). But what the Wildcats showed in their loss to the Golden Bears one year ago and are looking to prove they have moved past is a level of immaturity that comes with a rebuilding program.
That and other questions are facing the Wildcats as they prepare for what may very well be, with apologies to Arizona State who is trying their hardest to earn the honor, the worst opponent left on their schedule.
Let’s take a look at the three biggest.
What kind of season will Jayden de Laura have?
By all accounts this was supposed to be a big year for de Laura. Entering his second season as Arizona’s starting QB, he had a much better handle on the offense and bulked up to be in the kind of shape necessary to not only survive the season, but thrive.
In many respects he has looked good — really good. He is completing a career-best 74 percent of his passes, while his average of 9.2 yards per attempt also represents a career high. Further he has already rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, with the yardage total surpassing his career best (122, set last season) and his rushing TD total half of what he amassed in ‘22.
If only that was the whole story. On the field de Laura has also had issues with turnovers, tossing five interceptions while losing a fumble. One could make the case he was the reason Arizona lost to Mississippi State, while he has yet to be the reason the Cats have won a game this season.
Ideally de Laura’s turnover-free performance against UTEP, a game in which he completed nearly 80 percent of his passes while throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns (while also rushing four times for 33 yards) is more of what we will see from him. But the game plans going forward are likely to feature fewer passes in the flat, meaning the QB will have to make some good decisions and throws in order to move the team down the field. Mistakes are going to happen — it’s the nature of the sport and just comes with the way de Laura plays — but he’s also capable of greatness, which Arizona will likely need as it gets into the heart of the schedule.
The defense is better, but how much?
The hope was that the overhaul of Arizona’s defense would lead to a better group. So far, so good. In three games the Cats have allowed just 44 points, limiting opponents to a measly 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. Teams have converted just 33 percent of their third downs and the Wildcats have collected six sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
It’s a great start, but one that must be put into the context of the opponents they have faced. NAU and UTEP have a way of making a defense look good.
Then again, Arizona’s defense struggled to stop pretty much everyone last season, capable offense or not. So yes, they are better.
We probably won’t get a good gauge of how much better they are this weekend against Stanford, as the Cardinal offense is not one to strike fear into the hearts of anyone other than both of the team’s fans.
But going forward, will the young and mostly untested secondary be able to hold up? Will Arizona’s defensive front continue to plug up running lanes and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage? Jacob Manu and Justin Flowe are proving to be quite the linebacker duo, but how will they hold up in coverage? Will the team’s safeties be a strength or, at worst, not a liability?
Arizona’s defense is clearly deeper than it has been in a long time and there is obvious talent all over the field. But even their improvements may not be enough to keep up with what they are set to face.
Will the program continue to build?
From top to bottom Arizona has a very talented roster. There is a good mix of veterans, freshman and players in between who are ready to contribute but also have room to grow.
Pity it won’t be the same next year.
One of the greatest challenges a coaching staff faces is trying to win now while not sacrificing the future. Playing time was a selling point early in Jedd Fisch’s tenure, but now that the team has improved so much it appears as though some talented young players are struggling to earn snaps.
They may be OK with it, willing to bide their time and wait for their shot. Or they may not be.
Even though Arizona has played well, it’s fair to wonder if there can be a bigger role for guys like Jonah Coleman, Speedy Luke, Kevin Green Jr., Keyon Burnett and A.J. Jones. Each is probably good enough to play more, and one can certainly see a world where standing on the sideline leads to wandering eyes and thoughts of where it could happen.
Undoubtedly there are others on offense and some players on defense who will, barring a larger role this season (or even if they get one) decide they’d rather seek out a new opportunity.
That’s just the way things go.
The most important thing is to win as much as possible this season. The next most important thing, which could become the most important thing if the wins don’t come, is positioning the roster to be even better in ‘24.
Those concepts won’t necessarily mesh, which creates a conundrum for the coaching staff. A coach’s job is to win, and Fisch is certainly expected to do so here in Year 3. But with what Arizona is set to lose after this season offensively, it would make sense to try and ensure players who the staff wants to see in key roles next season carve out meaningful roles this season.