After Arizona’s first spring practice, Jedd Fisch stepped in front of cameras with presumably the same message stretched across his shirt that’s been echoed to every current and prospective Arizona player since the 2021 season ended:

“Winners wanted.”

In the first season with Fisch as head coach, the Wildcats went 1-11. 

It’s true that Arizona outgained opponents on a per-play basis three times and went 1-2 in those games when you should be closer to 3-0 in such outings. It’s true that the Wildcats played in six one-score games, going 1-5 when you could probably point to a handful of singular plays that could have made that record look closer to 3-3 (or even better). And it’s also true that the Wildcats were about 1.5 games off the wins pace their scoring differential would normally dictate. 

But when you get to the spring portion of an offseason, all the context of what happened the previous fall fades. You are what your record says you are, and Arizona wasn’t a winning team. Fisch—and the rest of his coaching staff—has the task of fixing that. 

To that end, you can’t give the Cats anything other than an A-grade for how they handled the last three months. 

They signed a top-25 recruiting class and one of the best in program history. They added a starting quarterback from the transfer portal who just last season was named the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. They added a starting wideout from the transfer portal who was among college football’s very best producers a season ago. They got bigger and more nimble in key spots. 

“I would say this, not just the freshmen and the transfers, but our team looks a lot bigger to me,” Fisch told reporters after UA’s first spring period. “And they are bigger. … Any time you ask a player about our program, they talk about how good our strength program is. You could see it in our guys’ body types. Keyan Burnett’s a big, good-looking dude at 6-4, 6-5, maybe even 6-6, 230 pounds as a true freshman, so having him and T-Mac (Tetairoa McMillan) and AJ (Jones) and those guys out there as young kids, you can see a difference.

“It’s fun to see all the young guys and the size they have.”

McMillan, a top-100 wideout recruit from Servite (Calif.), is on campus going through spring ball, as are his Servite teammates Burnett and quarterback Noah Fifita. They’re some of the foundational pieces of a youth movement trying to turn this into a consistent winner. 

But when Jayden de Laura jumped into the transfer portal and came out of it with the ‘A’ across his chest, there was some wonder as to whether maybe this whole thing might have just accelerated a little bit. Add former UTEP wideout Jacob Cowing to the mix and things get even more interesting. 

A year after struggling to an almost excruciating degree to put points on the board, there is no shortage of potential home run-hitters on offense. 

It all hinges on de Laura at quarterback. 

The presumed starter—though he’ll have to legitimately win the position over the likes of Fifita, Will Plummer, Gunner Cruz, and Jordan McCloud—de Laura will move from a run-and-shoot system to a pro-style outfit that badly needs his playmaking.  

No team at the FBS level threw more interceptions than the Wildcats. Arizona ranked 111th in pass play success rate. 

“I feel really good,” said quarterback coach Jimmie Dougherty of the QB room. 

On de Laura, Dougherty said the obvious: “He’s very talented.” The coach likes what he sees in terms of decision-making. “The ball comes out really quickly, he’s a really quick decision-maker, which is probably the thing that’s stood out the most to me,” Dougherty continued. “He doesn’t have to take a lot of time to assess something and, you know, ‘Let me see the guy wide open,’ he can really anticipate it, throw it on time, and the ball comes out of his hand really nicely.”

Dougherty said de Laura has approached his new teammates the right way. There’s no toxicity in the room, de Laura added. Everyone’s fighting for one spot on Saturdays, but guys are going about things in a productive manner. “It’s been fairly easy so far,” Dougherty said, which he credited to de Laura for coming in with an attitude that his work on the grass will earn his teammates’ respect. 

In terms of adjustments, the play names are longer, de Laura said with a smile, but he’s getting comfortable with most everything else. Coaches called him a gamer. No Pac-12 quarterback threw more touchdown passes than de Laura did a season ago (23) and only three guys averaged more yards per attempt (7.8). 

He’s what Arizona needs. The quarterback position needed to be settled to immediately take advantage of additions like McMillan, Cowing, the big man at tight end in Burnett, and running back Rayshon Luke (another 4-star signee). This spring could be key in getting everything to gel so guys can hit the ground running in fall camp and into the start of the season. 

This Arizona football team added playmakers. Will they be winners? That remains to be seen. And it’ll be heavily contingent on the work they get done as a unit this spring and then into the summer. But this has the makings of a guilty pleasure team for people who love to watch unadulterated football. 

What worked in 2021

When you only win one game in 12 tries, precious little worked. 

On a macro level, the team deserves credit for closing out the season the right way, for the most part. 

At 0-7 and coming off a 21-16 loss to Washington in which they were outscored 21-3 in the second half, Arizona likely goes in the tank like most teams would and folds to close the season. Instead, it outscored USC 20-6 in the second half of a seven-point loss and outgained the Trojans on a per-play basis. Then it beat Cal 10-3, with the game-winning drive spanning 55 yards and eight plays to take the lead with 2:17 left in the fourth quarter. Then it played the eventual league champs to a 38-36 margin in a loss to Utah. The Wildcats didn’t fold on the season. That’s commendable, especially considering the team was playing for a coaching staff it wasn’t initially recruited by. 

On the field, special teams can give you a window into team culture, and Arizona’s special teams, though it had bumps and warts and untimely breakdowns (so not too dissimilar from the rest of the team), it had bright spots that led you to believe the foundation is in good shape. The team’s leading receiver was a gunner on punt coverage who routinely was the first man down the field. 

Punting and kicking were two solid areas for the Wildcats as well, with returners who have a chance to be real weapons next season. 

Third-year punter Kyle Ostendorp led the Pac-12 in gross yards per punt, posting a school-record mark of 49.2. That proved to be the third-best mark in the country. He also led the Pac-12 in net yards, a good indicator of coverage strength as well. Ostendorp downed 19 kicks inside the 20 and had an allowed return rate of 31% (mid-tier in the league) despite facing the fewest fair catches of any qualified punter. That would seem to point to a guy generally putting the ball where it needs to be. He was PFF’s fourth-highest graded punter in the Pac-12 last season. 

Tyler Loop, the team’s placekicker, was the highest-graded at his position in the Pac-12 by PFF. Loop was perfect (12-for-12) on his kicks, including seven hits from 30 yards out. The Wildcats did use Lucas Havrisik for longer-range attempts, and he went 6-for-11 on attempts more than 30 yards.

Havrisik also handled kickoffs. His touchback rate ranked 10th among guys to attempt at least 20 kickoffs last season (146 players). 

Those two aspects of the game are often overlooked until it’s clear you don’t have a guy to do them properly. Arizona doesn’t have that problem. Havrisik departs, so Loop will need to be relied on more for his leg and not just his accuracy, but for a team looking to take next steps, having guys who can effectively manage field position is a huge advantage.

What didn’t work in 2021

Uh, how much time we got?

Two of the biggest areas in need of improvement: takeaways and big-play creation.

Teams can expect to recover 50% of fumbles and intercept about 20% of passes defended. Those will fluctuate year to year but hold pretty steady over the long term. Arizona intercepted only four of the 40 passes it defended, so half of what you can typically expect (hey, that’s math even writers can do without help!) and recovered only two of its opponents’ eight fumbles. (Half again. Liking Arizona even more now.) 

Averages say the Wildcats should have produced 12 takeaways. They produced six. At the Power Five level (so 65 teams, including Notre Dame), only four teams had worse turnover luck. 

With Johnny Nansen taking over for Don Brown (UMass coaching job) as the team’s new defensive coordinator and an expected transition to more of a 4-2-5/4-1-6 defensive scheme, it’ll be imperative that Nansen and his defensive assistants can identify some guys in coverage who can go create splash plays. 

Not only did Arizona have a problem capitalizing on the chances it did create, it struggled to create them in the first place. Again, only a handful of teams at the Power Five level forced fewer fumbles or defended fewer pass attempts.

When the coaches talk about stopping the run, being more physical at the line of scrimmage, rushing the passer better, those are all things that require time to turn around and talent infusions to fix. If you can be more opportunistic you can help your margins. Tip drills and punching the ball out, getting 11 hats to the ball, being attacking are all things that can shift with more of a mindset change than a physical profile overhaul. 

On the offensive side of the ball, Arizona stunk in situations where it had the ball in scoring opportunities. The Wildcats scored touchdowns on just 31% of their red zone trips, a clip that ranked dead last among 130 FBS teams. They ranked 127th in points produced per scoring opportunity (drives that crossed the opponent’s 40), averaging less than three despite the aforementioned kickers on the roster. Only 40% of their drives even reached the 40 (national average was 48%, UA ranked 110th). 

Poor decision-making at the quarterback spot contributed a great deal to that. But that’s been well-covered this offseason already and talked about ad nauseam. Yes, getting bigger-bodied wideouts to help in red zone situations helps, and getting more consistent quarterback play helps, but what can also help the Wildcats’ point production significantly is just making those situations less imperative. 

Arizona had one of the 20 least-explosive offenses in college football last season. It produced a 10-yard run 12% of the time (49th in P5) and a 20-yard pass only 6% of the time (dead last in P5). Only Vanderbilt had a worse points-per-play clip at the P5 level. 

Offenses that have to grind and sustain drives to score don’t often go very far. Your touchdown rate drops when you get beyond seven plays. Every coach talks about quick-hitters because in many instances they’re the most essential element of a winning offense. 

Among qualified Pac-12 throwers, Will Plummer threw the fourth-fewest deep balls last season, per PFF. He was 9-for-37 on balls thrown more than 20 yards downfield and picked off four times. Gunner Cruz and Jordan McCloud threw a combined eight balls downfield in 196 attempts, with two of them ending in interceptions.

The guy who led the league in deep shots? Jayden de Laura, who went 26-for-63 (41%) with nine scores and four picks, earned the third-best grade from PFF on deep throws. He registered 21 big-time throws (most in the Pac-12) on deep shots. He also had the most turnover-worthy plays, so there’s the growth piece in his game—decision-making and placement—but a little of that gunslinger mentality is necessary. 

How that element of his game marries with Jedd Fisch and Jimmie Dougherty’s offense will be fascinating to watch.

What’s coming back

Everything of significance returns in the backfield. 

The Wildcats begin spring ball with five quarterbacks battling for the job. That could change after spring ball given Fisch’s mode of operating. “I am into naming our guy,” he has said. “I would like to find our guy and name him.” After the second practice, he said he wanted to get reps divided up pretty soon rather than giving each guy their own day. 

At running back, each of the top four rushers from last season are back. Rayshon Luke and Jonah Coleman are freshmen who could earn immediate playing time as well. 

Five of the seven offensive linemen who saw 100 snaps last season return, including top snap-getter Paiton Fears. The combination of Fears, Josh Donovan, Jordan Morgan, Josh Baker, and JT Hand have a combined 38 starts to their name as well. New Mexico transfer Jack Buford played 151 snaps for the Lobos last year as well. 

Wideout is the group that’ll look the most different. Gone are four of the top five receivers last season, guys who combined to catch 155 passes for 1,607 yards and seven touchdowns. In is the electric duo of Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan. Cowing put up 69 receptions for 1,367 yards and seven scores last season with the UTEP Miners. Add second-year man Dorian Singer to the intriguing list after a freshman season that saw him produce 18 catches for 301 yards (team-best 16.7 average) in just five appearances.

The defense returns 10 of its top 15 tacklers from a season ago, including five of the top six. The leading guy, Anthony Pandy (82 tackles last season) is gone, however. Most of the attrition hits at that linebacker level, but with Arizona pivoting to put more defensive backs on the field, that might not be as painful as it normally would. There are options of intrigue—Michigan transfer Anthony Solomon, second-year man Malik Reed, second-year Arizona native Ammon Allen who moved inside from the Viper position this spring—in the middle.

What’s on the schedule

  • at San Diego State (Sept. 3)
  • vs. Mississippi State (Sept. 10)
  • vs. North Dakota State (Sept. 17)
  • at California (Sept. 24)
  • vs. Colorado (Oct. 1)
  • vs. Oregon (Oct. 8)
  • at Washington (Oct. 15)
  • vs. USC (Oct. 29)
  • at Utah (Nov. 5)
  • at UCLA (Nov. 12)
  • vs. Washington State (Nov. 19)
  • vs. Arizona State (Nov. 25)

That’s potentially a tricky open to the year. North Dakota State is as tough a program as there is at the FCS level. The Bison went 14-1 last season to win their ninth FCS national championship. Mississippi State is also a trendy team. The Bulldogs sit 12th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections for 2022.

The stretch from Oct. 29 through Nov. 12 is brutal.

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • Colorado (Sunday, March 20)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 23)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 27)