Despite a losing season, University of Arizona football is building winning program
As the clock hit double zeroes after Arizona won the Territorial Cup against Arizona State for the first time in six years, chaos ensued. Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch was doused in a Gatorade bath and students stormed the field. Through all of the craziness, Fisch, the mastermind behind the quick turnaround of the football program, didn’t get the chance to lay his hands on the coveted trophy while on the field.
“I thought we had it all locked in,” Fisch said of the plans to celebrate with the trophy. “I had all these protocols in place, but your best-laid plan doesn’t always work out, I guess. It was supposed to come to me, to the captains and (senior defensive end) Jalen Harris, and then we were gonna pass it from there. But then all of a sudden there was mayhem, and I didn’t see the cup until I got in the locker room.”
In Saturday’s game, where neither Arizona nor ASU were bowl eligible, everything meant more on the field in the Territorial Cup, and Arizona pulled off a 38-35 victory to bring its end-of-season record to 5-7, one year removed from going 1-11.
“I feel like this win means a lot, especially for older guys, all the trials and tribulations they’ve been through throughout their career here,” sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura said. “And for the young guys, it just helps them see that this is how it should be here, and this is what is kind of expected with our team that we have. So it’s a good win going into this offseason.“
Fisch added: “It was a great feeling in that locker room. Our players deserve that victory and have earned it for how long they’ve worked.”
After one season of working as the New England Patriots quarterback coach, Fisch, who many respect for his offensive mind, took over the program two days before Christmas in 2020 after the Wildcats went 0-5 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, which ended with a 70-7 loss to ASU.
Despite a 1-11 record in Fisch’s first season, the Wildcats managed to have seven All-Pac-12 selections and two on the First Team, marking the first time in a decade that this happened. They also made strides forward on defense, allowing an average of 31.4 points per game after giving up 39.8 points a year prior, and held Cal to three on Nov. 6.
“We really felt … we were going to have to start at where (the program) was – coming off (a 70-7 loss to ASU) in 2020 – and build it from the ground up and build it with players first and culture,” Fisch said after the Territorial Cup. “We felt that it was going to take time, and we didn’t know exactly where we were last year when we got here.
“We didn’t know exactly what the season was gonna look like. The season ended and we felt like going into the offseason, we had a chance to do some really special things. We brought some really good players in here and the players that stayed were committed to getting better.”
Heading into 2022, the Wildcats finished with the 22nd composite recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports. The betting line for the Wildcats’ win total was three games, but after wins over then-No. 9 UCLA and Arizona State, which were both considered by Arizona players to be the top wins in the Fisch era, the Wildcats surpassed the preseason expectations with a 5-7 mark.
“I think that to take a jump from being 1-23 over a two-and-a-half year span, to getting to five wins this year, to beating a top-10 team on the road, to winning the Territorial Cup, to winning the opening day game (at San Diego State), beating a team like North Dakota State, there’s a lot of positives this season,” Fisch said.
After playing three different starting quarterbacks in the 2021 season, this year was all about offense after the Wildcats brought in transfer de Laura, who was last season’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, from Washington State. They also added receivers Jacob Cowing, who transferred closer to his hometown of Maricopa from UTEP after posting 2,595 yards and 13 touchdowns over his three seasons for the Miners, and their highest-graded recruit ever, Tetairoa McMillan, who was one of four incoming freshmen from Southern California’s Servite High School.
Cowing and sophomore wide receiver Dorian Singer each finished with over 1,000 receiving yards and were one of three receiver tandems in the FBS to achieve this feat. McMillan appears to be on his way to making numerous freshman All-America teams, as he ranked third among freshmen in receiving yards (702) and first in receiving touchdowns (8). The Wildcats improved their offensive scoring total from 17.2 points per game last season to 30.8 this season. With the offensive firepower around him, de Laura finished eighth in the country in total passing yards.
“I think (de Laura) has made great progress in learning our system,” Fisch said. His ability to make plays off schedule is unique, and is one in which I can’t wait to see more of as we go.
“The more knowledge he has of where everybody’s going to be, the better those plays are going to be. I know he’s excited about hitting the weight room this offseason and continuing to build up body armor and get his speed up even more. I think that his poise back there, his understanding of the running game has been tremendous, and has really improved throughout the year.
“I’m extremely excited about where Jayden de Laura can go. I think he should be a First Team All-Pac-12 player going into next season, and I’m hopeful that there’ll be every watch list possible for Jayden.”
In the Territorial Cup, de Laura and the Wildcat offense leaned on the running game, which amassed 280 rushing yards and scored all five touchdowns.
“(I’m) proud of Jayden handling (handing the ball off more),” Fisch said. “When you’re one of the best, if not the best quarterback in the country, and you get told you’re gonna throw the ball 23 times in a rivalry game, I thought he handled it massively.”
Added de Laura: “Whatever Coach asks from me, it’s just go out there and just execute it. I have a lot of faith in our O-line and our running backs, whoever’s in the game. Just give them the ball and let them go to work. Just get the ball in the playmakers’ hands.”
The Wildcats have a lot of potential in their running back group, including freshmen Jonah Coleman, who scored a touchdown in the Territorial Cup, and Rayshon “Speedy” Luke. Michael Wiley, a returning junior from Houston, finished with 214 rushing yards and three touchdowns against ASU. He also added 51 receiving yards.
“It wasn’t just me,” Wiley said of his performance. “It was my O-line and the receivers blocking downfield, they played a hell of a game. I always love them up every time I get a big run, it’s not just me out there.”
Like Arizona’s key players at the quarterback, running back and receiver positions, Arizona’s two top performers on the offensive line are also eligible to stay one more year. Junior Jordan Morgan, a projected early round NFL Draft pick who tore his ACL late in the season against UCLA, and Jonah Savaiinaea, a true freshman from Hawai’i who started every single game, as well as the rest of the Arizona offensive line paved the way all season for the rushing attack and in protection for de Laura. Savaiinaea also has a strong case for being a Freshman All-American, and he and McMillan were recently named to the 2022 PFF College All-True Freshman Team.
“I don’t know how many times I can ever think about an opportunity where a true freshman comes in and starts every single game on the offensive line,” Fisch said of Savaiinaea. “I don’t know how often that occurs. And each week, his grades were great.”
“(Next year), we have our whole offense back, which I’m excited about and the opportunity to really become really good,” Fisch said.
Late defensive improvement
On the defensive side, first-year defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen and the Wildcats finally saw improvement late in the season. After allowing 38.2 points per game during the first nine games of the season, with opposing offenses scoring 49 points three times, Fisch said the Arizona defense started playing “really good” following a 45-20 loss to Utah. Since that game, the Wildcats allowed 31.3 points per game in their last three matchups.
“I think early on in the season, I would say we were probably playing somewhere in the range of 13 to 14 players on defense,” Fisch said after the Wildcats’ second-to-last game. “And now, I think we’re playing up to about 19 to 20 players on defense, so they’re fresher, they’re coming in with more pass rush because they’re not necessarily having to play 53 reps in a game. They’re playing 32 reps in a game or 34 reps in a game. I think that’s a huge part of the pass rush.”
Against ASU, the pass rush proved successful. The Wildcats had eight tackles for loss, including a strip sack. The Wildcats in total had five takeaways against the Sun Devils and held the Pac-12’s second-leading rusher, Xazavien Valladay, to under 100 yards.
The Wildcats’ game plan was to “stop the run and create turnovers,” said LB Jerry Roberts, who led Arizona with 11 tackles in his final collegiate game. “And we created turnovers like our DC coach Nansen (said), and he told us, ‘There was no question that we’re gonna win the game.’”
The Wildcats’ biggest positions to fill for next season, according to Fisch, are the pass-rushing positions, as Roberts (second on the team in tackles this season), Harris and defensive lineman Hunter Echols are graduating.
Harris, who has played for Arizona since 2017, expects the program to continue to improve after he leaves and is grateful for his time with the Wildcats.
“If I had one word to describe (my time at Arizona), I’d say adversity,” Harris said after the Territorial Cup. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity here. And it’s just something I think that’s going to help me, whether that’s on the next level or in the real world and being able to fight hard situations that I’ve had and being able to win and end up on top (as exemplified by the victory over ASU), so (this game) feels good.”
The Wildcats already have young talent to fill their shoes. On both sides of the ball, Fisch said they played 16 freshmen against ASU. Freshman safety Isaiah Taylor caught the game-sealing interception during the Territorial Cup. The Wildcats’ biggest freshman standout on defense late in the year was linebacker Jacob Manu, another Servite product who only had 13 total tackles over the first half of the season, but finished with 54 overall and was awarded the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after a 10-tackle performance in the win over UCLA.
“I really like our young guys,” Fisch said. “I like our depth, our defense got a lot better throughout the year, the more we played more players. So, we’re going to look at all of it, though, and see where we can improve. And in my opinion, we’re going to look everywhere to improve everywhere.”
Fisch was unsure about who among “the fourth-year players” were potentially leaving, but said there were no “third-year players” planning to leave. The biggest question marks for the Wildcats would be whether or not Cowing, Morgan or Wiley, as well as defensive linemen Kyon Barrs, safety Jaxen Turner or cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, declare for the NFL Draft or enter the NCAA transfer portal.
After three players entered the portal during the season, the Wildcats have only had one player, RB Drake Anderson, put their name into the portal since the season ended. Anderson led the team in rushing yards in 2021 but had no touches this season.
Arizona has 20 commits already for the 2023 season and Fisch said 95% of next season’s class should sign with the team on early signing day on Dec. 21.
“I would expect this year(‘s roster turnover) to be pretty substantial,” Fisch said. “I would expect it to be in a pretty similar number; I don’t know if it would be that high (as this 2022 season, when the Wildcats had 50 new players). But I’m going to say that we’ll probably have a high number, and then I think after that it’ll kind of mellow out (in future years).”
With the new transfer portal rules and name, image and likeness (NIL) laws, recruiting has changed a lot, but Fisch is confident in Arizona’s NIL offerings.
“I think that our family atmosphere, I think our program is built in a way that people want to be a part of Arizona football,” Fisch said. “We have a good collective. We have good sports, good sponsors in Tucson, we have people that want to help our players the right way.
“Certainly our players have benefited from NIL, and I think they’ll continue to benefit from NIL. Our boosters and our donors have made sure that our collective stays strong, and that we can compete with anybody on the West Coast.”
In terms of the transfer portal, Fisch added: “We’re going to try to build our roster through high school recruiting as always, and retention of our own players. And then when the opportunity presents itself, I would say in the portal, which there are some grad transfers that are already in the portal, you could start talking to them and get them here on official visits. And then December 5, when the undergraduate portal drop occurs, then you have to figure out from that point in time who are you going to go to next.”
Fisch recognizes that it takes patience and is a process to rebuild. He mentioned Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops as coaches who didn’t have a winning season until their fourth year. However, Fisch wants to cut that number down by one in terms of himself and Arizona, which would mean a winning season next year.
“I told our team, I said, ‘We finished last in 2019 in the Pac-12. We finished last in 2020, finished last in 2021. And this year, we finished eighth. So how do we get to sixth? How do we get to fourth?’” Fisch said. “In this case right now, the build is still the build, the build isn’t changing. We’re still trying to get better. We want to get better. We want to bring in more players, better players, and keep building off of what we did.
“Jayden (de Laura) is gonna get better, right. T-Mac (Tetairoa McMillan) is gonna get better and Dorian (Singer) is gonna get better. Jonah (Savaiinaea)’s gonna get better. Defensively, we have all these young guys, they’re all just gonna get better. And, if we continue to get better then the build should never end, it’s an infinite game. And that’s what we tell our team, that it is an infinite game and all we want to do is just continue to see how good we can be.”