Going into the season it was widely assumed Jayden de Laura would be playing his last for the Arizona Wildcats.
He would be eligible for the NFL Draft and, even if he wasn’t seen as a top pro prospect, there would likely be little else for him to prove at the collegiate level.
Going into the team’s fifth game, many are hoping de Laura has played his last game for the program.
It’s crazy how quickly things can change.
The saga that is de Laura’s tenure with Arizona is quite storied, even if it’s only 16 games long. His on-field performance has at times been both stunning and maddening, impressive and frustrating. Sometimes all in the same game.
His off-field issues are disturbing, albeit the truth is not something most of us are privy to.
Regardless, it all factors into the perception of Arizona’s QB1, and following his injury late in last week’s win at Stanford and the subsequent solid play from backup Noah Fifita, a good chunk of fans believe it is time for a permanent change at the position.
Though to be fair, some felt that way before this season even began. And de Laura’s uneven start to this season, along with his uninspiring performance against Stanford, has made asking for his being replaced an opinion rising in popularity.
It may not matter, at least in the sense of him being benched.
Although head coach Jedd Fisch has not made public the extent of de Laura’s injury, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — he will be unable to play Saturday night against Washington. That would force the coach to turn to Fifita and, depending on how long de Laura is out, lead to the redshirt freshman getting a decent look as the team’s starting quarterback.
On Monday, Fisch said the team wouldn’t have to change its preparation should Fifita get the nod.
“They’ve learned the offense the exact same way, they’ve been at the exact same meetings and they have very similar skill sets, in a lot of ways so nothing changes,” he said. “The only thing that would potentially change would be practice reps based upon Jayden’s health.
“So, if the practice reps go more to Noah and less than to Jayden because he’s unable to go, that would be the only difference but in regards to the game plan in regards to preparation regards to what we do, zero difference.”
Don’t believe him.
If Fifita is the QB the game plan will most certainly change, at least a little. While both he and de Laura may offer similar mobility and arm strength and have the same understanding of the offense, they are in fact two different players. One has 32 games of experience under his belt, the other 27 collegiate pass attempts.
That’s fine. Every great QB started out as someone who lacked college football experience and there are some experienced QBs who aren’t so good. It’s also not as if Fifita is new to Arizona, so he has plenty of experience working with his offensive line, running backs, receivers and tight ends within the offense he’ll be tasked with running.
So who knows, maybe Fifita will in fact play well, keep the job and usher in a new era of Arizona Football. Some are hoping for exactly that, and while Fifita may be the future, it is in fact the past that can help guide the decision.
Within de Laura’s struggles it’s easy to forget how effective he was last season. The QB threw for 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns, and while he had some bad games his good and really good performances outnumbered them. Even in his slow start this season de Laura has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, averaged the highest yards-per-attempt of his career and is on pace to throw 36 TD passes (along with 20 interceptions).
Has he been great? No. But let’s not pretend he has been awful or that he is not capable of playing at a high level. Let’s also understand he could very easily come back from his time away refreshed and ready to play at the level we expected of him before the season began.
He’ll deserve that opportunity, and so far in public comments Fisch has given no indication he is thinking differently.
In a perfect world Fifita will play well enough to create a full-blown, legitimate quarterback controversy. Him leading Arizona to some upset wins and the precipice of bowl eligibility would be great and is something everyone should be rooting for.
Of course, the more likely scenario is that Fifita is fine — shows flashes of what he can do and what he could become but doesn’t do enough to beat the tough opponents Arizona will face and outright earn the job.
Short of Fifita lighting up the scoreboard and being a revelation a la Khalil Tate in 2017, the job should go back to de Laura once he is, in fact, healthy.
Until proven otherwise, he is still Arizona’s best chance to win.