Based on their recent record and roster deficiencies that can’t be fixed in one offseason, the Arizona Wildcats appear to be a rebuilding project. Possibly a multiyear project.
That didn’t stop Jedd Fisch and his staff from taking an all-gas, no-brakes approach to the UA’s first spring practice Tuesday. One coach in particular embraced the aggressiveness for which he is best known: defensive coordinator Don Brown.
Although he is installing a completely new scheme, Brown isn’t easing his players into it.
“Trying to communicate with one another in a new system is not always easy,” Brown said. “We’ve got a lot of concepts up and running right now. We’re probably somewhere in the 30s in terms of the number of calls that we can make.
“Somebody will say, ‘Oh jeez, why are you jammin’ it that fast at them?’ Nobody’s waiting for us. Nobody. They’ve had their systems in place for a while. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, we’ll wait for Arizona to catch up.’ We have to catch up. So that’s the challenge I’ve presented the guys.”
Brown said 30-plus calls is “a lot” at this stage but “not out of the realm.” Although some key pieces were limited to side work, including linebackers Anthony Pandy and Derick Mourning, the defense seemed to handle the load well.
“It was a little tricky,” veteran defensive end Jalen Harris said. “But we could take this day and learn from it. He threw a lot at us, but if we want to be great, we’ve got to take it and be able to do good with it. It was a lot, (but) we’re gonna watch the film and get better.”
Brown’s pressure-oriented scheme should help the offense as well. Arizona struggled to decipher and neutralize blitzes last season, surrendering a league-high 18 sacks in five games.
“We hit the ground running on offense and defense,” said Brennan Carroll, the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. “Going up against Don, he really makes you work. It’s great for our guys, all the different looks we get. I love that our guys are getting to go against his defense.”
During the practice-ending 11-on-11 period Tuesday, Will Plummer connected with Zach Williams on a pass over the middle. Then Plummer hit Williams deep. Then Kevin Doyle found Williams open on a rollout pass in the flat.
Williams is one of eight tight ends on Arizona’s spring roster. If the first practice was any indication, all the talk about Arizona finally utilizing tight ends wasn’t just talk.
Senior Bryce Wolma came to that realization when he first laid eyes on Fisch’s playbook.
“That was my moment of like, ‘OK, this is real. This is actually gonna happen,’ ” Wolma said.
Wolma had 28 receptions as a freshman in 2017. He had half that many over the next three seasons, in which he appeared in 28 of 29 games.
Wolma said he primarily has been playing the “H” position in Fisch’s offense. Stacey Marshall has been working alongside him at the “Y.” Williams, who has toggled between tight end and receiver during his UA career, had an impressive first day. Arizona also added UNLV transfer Alex Lines, who played last season under current UA tight ends coach Jordan Paopao.
The tight end room is fuller than it’s been in years, and the position is an integral part of the offense beyond blocking. Wolma couldn’t be happier about it.
“I had great talks with Coach Paopao and Coach Fisch even before they got here,” Wolma said. “They were telling me everything that they were going to do. And to come in and have it all be true ... it’s a great feeling.”
Jalen Harris wasn’t the only Harris rushing the quarterback Tuesday.
Jalen’s younger brother, Jason, made his UA practice debut after transferring from Colorado in the offseason.
Although the siblings are playing the same position, Jalen said there will be times they’re on the field together. As far as being on the same team, it was something Jalen had hoped would happen when Jason committed out of Gilbert Higley High School. It took about a year, a pandemic and a coaching change for the Harris brothers to be reunited.
“It was a decision he had to make at the end of the day,” Jalen Harris said. “He had to do what’s best for him. But I wanted him to play with me.”
Jalen and Jason were teammates for one year at Mesa Desert Ridge in 2016. Jalen is in his fifth year at the UA. Jason is entering his second year of college and will be classified as a freshman in 2021.
“Coach Fisch and his staff contacted him and said they wanted him,” Jalen Harris said. “He was all in. He wanted to play with his brother.”
First for Fisch
The first practice represented a milestone moment for Fisch: It was his first as a full-time college head coach.
Fisch served as UCLA’s interim coach at the end of the 2017 season. He had aspired to reach this level since he was a teenager in New Jersey. He spent 20-plus years as an assistant before getting the UA job.
“It was a lot of fun,” Fisch said. “I woke up early this morning excited about the chance to be out here, excited about being a part of something special.
“I think what we have going here is going to be outstanding. I think Arizona football is going to take this thing to a whole new level. I can’t wait to be a part of this thing and watch our players go.”
Fisch left for work at 5:29 a.m. Tuesday, according to a video posted on the team’s Twitter account to document his first day. Practice ended a little after 7 p.m. After speaking to the media, Fisch spent time reviewing film in his office.
- Fisch said several criteria determined who got the first-team reps in the first practice, including performance in the weight room, the offseason conditioning program and the classroom; knowledge of the playbook; and film from last season. He added that putting together the depth chart would be “an ever-changing process.”
- Besides Pandy and Mourning, a handful of other players were absent or limited to rehab work. Tailback Michael Wiley took on-field reps and also worked in the rehab area. Defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell did not participate in field work.
- UA practices this week are open to the first 200 fans who arrive at the Dick Tomey Practice Fields. Masks must be worn. The Wildcats are scheduled to work out at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday. About 50 fans attended Tuesday’s practice, but most left when rain fell and forced much of the session to be conducted in the Davis Sports Center.