Football was played Saturday! Real (kinda) football! There was tackling to the ground and a pretty good level of competition across the board.

Spring is always a period dominated by hope, and Arizona’s reason for hope as it moves toward Year 2 for Jedd Fisch was on full display in Saturday’s spring game. Here are three takeaways from the Red team’s 24-21 win over the Blue team.

An attacking defense

“They were impressive to be honest with you,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said this week of the Arizona secondary. “Just look at the number of takeaways we had in 14 days. I think we had 23. That’s pretty impressive. I’ve been to a lot of places and that hasn’t happened.”

Here. Last year. That’s a place where it didn’t happen.

Arizona had four interceptions all season. Only six FBS teams had fewer.

In the first half of the team’s spring game on Saturday, Arizona picked off two passes—one from presumed starting quarterback Jayden de Laura and another from Jordan McCloud.

Neither throw was a particularly good one from the quarterbacks. De Laura tried to force a throw over the top to new wideout Jacob Cowing. You like the aggression, and it was good to see Arizona looking for ways to push the ball to the former UTEP playmakers, but safety Jaydin Young came over the top fairly easily.

The second interception, a McCloud throw that was cut off by safety Jaxen Turner, was returned for a pick-six. McCloud was late and behind on a crosser. Turner pounced.

Arizona spent a ton of the spring period talking about creating more takeaways. Nansen wants his defense to attack. The Wildcats made it a priority.

This was a defense that spent most of its coverage snaps last year playing man under Don Brown. They expect to play more zone coverage this season under Nansen. Arizona has some talent in the secondary; it was good to see them hunting the ball a bit.

Illustrative late-first-half drive

A drive from the Red team at the end of the first half showed the promise that has Arizona excited offensively and the work that Arizona still has to do.

It began inside the 10-yard-line thanks to a near-perfect coffin punt from Kyle Ostendorp—a real weapon for this team. But de Laura uncorked a shot down the right sideline for wideout Dorian Singer on the first play. De Laura put it where only his guy could get the ball and Singer went up to bring it down. The next play was a little swing to Cowing, who made one man miss (kind of) and picked up plus yardage. Then running back Michael Wiley kept things moving with a screen. Arizona was moving. If de Laura can make those big throws when presented, Arizona should have enough skill talent around him to keep the chains churning.

But once the Wildcats got into the red zone—a major area of emphasis this spring—it sputtered. A jet sweep got the ‘Cats inside the five on first down. But de Laura was tagged off on the next two plays to move the ball back and set up what was eventually a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Edge rusher Hunter Echols showed a nice little move off the edge for a tag-off sack. Arizona got inconsistent push from the offensive line throughout the day. That’s still clearly a work in progress.

Competition abounds

When you post the record Arizona posted last season, everything needs to get better and it has to be an all-the-time commitment. Competition has to be everywhere, every rep. Fittingly, Fisch had his team tackling during a spring game. Aside from the QBs—who were wearing non-contact jerseys—guys were hitting.

Nansen wants his defense to be the best-tackling team in the Pac-12. Dialing up a live spring game is pretty fearless, considering most coaches’ only goal for these things is to just make it out healthy, but it should serve as a solid building block toward achieving that goal.

There was a good energy at the game. Guys were attacking. Work to do, yes, but a good energy nonetheless.

“There is a tremendous buzz, not only in Tucson but around the state, in California, and in a lot of recruiting areas about what’s going on at Arizona,” Athletic Director Dave Heeke told the Pac-12 Network broadcast crew at the half. “That’s exciting.

”We were at a real juncture with our football program. Where do we want to go? How do we want to do this? We made the decision to start over. We’re going to break it down, strip it down, and build it back correctly, invest the time and energy into that. Last season, we probably didn’t show the results in the win column, but when you dissect the games, when you dissect what went on for the last year and a half, our program is so much better. Those are the building blocks you have to put in place foundationally to make sure you have success. … I feel really good about where the program’s headed.”

Extra Points

  • The mid-year enrollee guys who got a ton of pub this spring looked the part. Tetairoa McMillan had a nifty back-shoulder snag along the sideline. Keyan Burnett got himself open for an easy touchdown early; a tight end! Running back Jonah Coleman is a bowling ball of a running back.
  • True freshman guard Jonah Savaiinaea was with the top offensive line group. He looks every bit the 6-foot-4, 337 pounds he’s listed at. He’s mobile for such a big guy.
  • Noah Fifita looks promising. He threw a couple of balls with really good zip and yet nice placement. Fisch had good things to say about the true freshman quarterback all spring, saying he was pushing everyone. It was clear to see why he was such an exciting get in the 2022 class.