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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

Arizona WBB looks to rebound at home against UC San Diego
Jason Dayee, Assistant Sports Editor • December 7, 2023

Arizona football season preview 2023: The Wildcats are finally bowl game contenders

Nathanial Stenchever

Keyan Burnett, a tight end on the Arizona football team, works on blocking drills before a scrimmage on Aug. 20, 2022, at Arizona Stadium. The mock game would consist of the offense taking on the defense for the night in a friendly scrimmage.

Jedd Fisch is in his third year as head coach of the Arizona football team and has kept a remarkably consistent coaching staff. He retained offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll — yes, the son of Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll — and passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty for all three seasons. Fisch has expanded the coaching staff while retaining key contributors such as tight ends coach Jordan Paopao, running backs coach Scottie Graham, wide receivers coach Kevin Cummings, defensive line coach Ricky Hunley and defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil

The only major shakeup faced by this coaching staff was the loss of former defensive coordinator Don Brown after the 2021 season, who took the vacant head coaching position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Current defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen succeeded him before the start of the 2022 season, vacating his position as the defensive line coach for UCLA. The defense showed  regression from 2021, but another year in Nansen’s system could allow for players to become more comfortable and establish a more robust identity.

With stability and culture at the forefront, there are a number of storylines to track for the upcoming 2023 season.

Quarterback stability

With how quickly he took over the locker room as an important leader and impact player, it’s hard to believe that last season was just Jayden de Laura’s first as the Wildcats’ signal caller. After spending the 2020 and ‘21 seasons as a member of Washington State University’s football team, he entered the transfer portal and landed in Tucson ahead of the 2022 season. Though his off-field choices have caused scrutiny into his character — and justifiably so — he remains a steady and reliable football player that has not yet hit his developmental ceiling.

The 2021 season saw four quarterbacks appear in two or more games and combined for 12 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and just a single win. De Laura’s arrival brought about a tone shift. In 2022, the only other quarterback to see any snaps was Noah Fifita, who only appeared in 3 games and attempted 19 passes. De Laura threw all but one of the team’s 26 touchdown passes, scored four rushing touchdowns and contributed 435 of the 459 pass attempts (94.7%) thrown on the season. He alone threw for more yards (3,685) than the entirety of the 2021 quarterback room (2,716)

The two years following former starter Khalil Tate Jr.’s departure were rocky, but de Laura has brought much-needed stability to the most important position on the football field. It’s not hard to imagine him throwing for nearly 4,000 yards in the upcoming season.

Recruiting cycle coming to fruition

Fisch has two full recruiting classes under his belt, but the young talents have been quick to make an early impact on the field. 

The premier young gun on the Wildcats’ roster right now is rising sophomore wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan who, before the commitment of defensive end Elijah Rushing, was the highest-graded prospect to ever sign with the Wildcats. McMillan played his high school ball at Servite High School alongside three other current Wildcatsquarterback Noah Fifita, tight end Keyan Burnett and linebacker Jacob Manu — and initially committed to the University of Oregon.

The former four-star prospect led the Wildcats with eight receiving touchdowns and 18 yards per catch in his first year. He finished the season with 702 receiving yards, which placed him firmly at third on the team. With the departure of Dorian Singer, last season’s leading receiver, to USC, there is an opening at the second wide receiver spot. The battle between McMillan and incoming transfer  Montana Lemonious-Craig from the University of Colorado Boulder has been one to watch, with both impressing in fall practices. 

Manu’s arrival to Tucson was relatively unheralded compared to the offensive trio that joined him. Despite this, he certainly outperformed Fifita and Burnett and still has room to improve. Manu was all over the stat sheet, appearing in all 12 games in his rookie campaign. He posted 27 solo tackles and tacked on another 27 combined tackles — best for second among linebackers in each category. He also recorded four tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits and a sack while getting his hands on two pass breakups. His pairing with incoming transfer Justin Flowe will pack a dynamic punch in the middle of the field for the new-look Wildcat defense.

Some other notable names that are still underclassmen are starting right tackle Jonah Savaiinaea, rising cornerback Ephesians Prysock (sophomore), running backs Rayshon Luke and Jonah Coleman (sophomores). Starting left guard Wendell Moe (redshirt freshman), incoming transfer Flowe (redshirt sophomore), starting free safety Isaiah Taylor (redshirt sophomore) and incoming wide receivers Malachi Riley and Jackson Holman (true freshmen)

Upward trajectory

After winning just one game over the course of the 2020 and 21 seasons, the Wildcats posted a 5-7 record in 2022. Between growth and improved chemistry on the field, it’s not hard to imagine Arizona gracing the field for a bowl game when December comes. 

Powerhouse football programs such as Ball State University, the University of Ohio — no, not Ohio State University — and the University of Nevada, Reno have all seen wins in a bowl game in Arizona Stadium since 2018. Meanwhile, the Wildcats haven’t even appeared in a bowl game since December 29, 2017, where they were handed a 38-35 loss by Purdue University in the Foster Farms Bowl

There are 39 bowl games to be played for the 2023 season, and each game needs two participants for a total of 78 teams that will play in bowl games. To be bowl-eligible, a team needs to have at least seven wins on the season. It’s a long shot to think the Wildcats have a chance at any of the New Year’s Six (Peach, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Rose) Bowls, but securing two more wins than last season is entirely within reason. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats make one of the five (Alamo, Holiday, Las Vegas, Sun and Jimmy Kimmel LA) Bowls with guaranteed Pac-12 tie-ins aside from the Rose Bowl.

Games to watch

The Arizona football team opens their regular season against NAU on Saturday, Sept. 2, at Arizona Stadium at 7 p.m. So long as things don’t shake out the same way they did in 2021, the Wildcats will be starting the season 1-0 before they face their real gauntlet.

The week after the season opener will see the Wildcats travel down to Starkville, Mississippi, to play against Mississippi State University and complete the home-and-home started in 2022. Will Rogers, the returning quarterback for the Bulldogs, is a well-known gunslinger who landed in the top-10 for passing yards last season with 3,974. Rogers is undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks in SEC history, and last season’s matchup saw him throw for over 300 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 39-17 win. The final score doesn’t tell the full story, though: it was a single-score game entering the fourth quarter, with the Wildcats being down 25-17 before allowing two more touchdowns and fading away. If the Wildcats are able to stun the Bulldogs and start the season 2-0, there’s little that Arizona and Fisch couldn’t get done this season.

In the last year of the existence of the Pac-12, as we know it today, there are some dynamite matchups on the schedule as well. 

The ever-formidable ASU, the reigning Pac-12 champion the University of Utah, a reloaded Colorado squad led by new head coach Deion Sanders and three Big Ten-bound schools — the University of Washington, USC and UCLA — all grace the schedule this season. In years past, these would all be write-in losses. However, another year of improvement and continued retooling means that Arizona could even give the Los Angeles-based schools and Utah a run for their money.

The week three matchup against the University of Texas at El Paso will be interesting as well. The program that built Jacob Cowing up and molded him into a 1,000-yard receiver is coming to Tucson. Cowing, a native of Maricopa, Arizona, spent his first three seasons with the Miners. After failing to post even 700 yards in either of his first two seasons, he exploded onto the scene in 2021 with 1,354 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, nearly doubling the next-closest receiver on the team in both categories. He continued on his tear by posting 1,054 yards and another 7 touchdowns in his homecoming-season while also leading the Pac-12 in receptions with 85.

With at least three games that can preemptively be written in pencil as wins, the Wildcats’ first three games will dictate the possibility of a bowl game appearance at the conclusion of the 2022 season. Scrounging together another four wins poses to be difficult, but the Wildcats are not strangers to adversity and will look to rise to the occasion.

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