Arizona aiming for next step in coach Fisch’s 2nd season

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona’s first season under coach Jedd Fisch was dotted with lopsided losses and just one win against a team depleted by COVID-19.

The Wildcats’ first full offseason under Fisch couldn’t have gone much better. Selling the coaching staff’s NFL connections and a plan for a better future, Fisch landed one of the Pac-12’s best recruiting classes, laying a foundation for the 2022 season and beyond.

“I think they saw that where we were is not where we’re headed,” Fisch said. “What they have the opportunity to do is be part of the change, to be a part of a program that I believe offers everything you can possibly want in an incredible environment, in a beautiful community, an opportunity to play and play early.”

Fisch’s inaugural season in the desert included a home loss to FCS Northern Arizona, the continuation of a school-record 20-game losing streak and a fifth-straight loss to rival Arizona State. Arizona’s only win was over California, which was missing 24 players due to COVID-19.

Undeterred, Fisch and his coaching staff kept their positive outlook and used it to convince high-level recruits that Tucson was the place to be. Arizona’s 2022 recruiting class was third in the Pac-12 in the 247 Sports composite, 22nd nationally and included the highest-ranked player in program history, receiver Tetairoa McMillan from Southern California.

The Wildcats are still in rebuilding mode — they were picked 11th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll — but appear to be moving toward a better future.

“We told those guys ‘we can help you get to the next level, if that’s what you aspire to do,’” Fisch said. “We know what it looks like in a draft room. We know what it looks like when it comes to successes. Additionally, we felt as if we needed to get some of those pieces in place, and they felt like they could immediately impact the results.

QB CONTINUITY

Arizona spent the past couple of seasons trying to find consistency at quarterback. The addition off Jayden de Laura should give the Wildcats a huge boost.

A 6-foot sophomore from Hawaii, de Laura was the 2021 Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year at Washington State last season after throwing for 2,798 yards and 23 touchdowns. He will have to adjust to Fisch’s pro-style offense after playing the run-and-shoot in Pullman, but de Laura has the skill set to give Arizona the consistency it has been missing.

“What was exciting for the University of Arizona is that when you could bring in the freshman player of the year, then you feel like you’ve got some continuity moving forward,” Fisch said.

STRENGTHS/WEAKNESSES

The addition of McMillan, rated the fifth-best receiver recruit in 2022 by 247 Sports, and UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing gives Arizona the chance to have one of the Pac-12’s best receiving corps. The running back group, led by Michael Wiley, is deep and talented.

The Wildcats’ secondary could be the strength of the defense with Christian Young moving from linebacker to safety, which could allow more aggressiveness with the pass rush.

One of Arizona’s biggest weaknesses the past few seasons has been protecting the quarterback. This year’s offensive line lost two starters and lacks experienced depth, so it may still be a problem.

The Wildcats also lack experience at linebacker, but the addition of USC transfer Hunter Echols should give them a lift.

SCHEDULE

Arizona will not ease into Fisch’s second season. The Wildcats open at San Diego State on Sept. 2, host Mississippi State and close out their nonconference schedule against FCS power North Dakota State.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play at Cal on Sept. 24 and has road games against Washington, Utah and UCLA. The Wildcats close the regular season at home against rival Arizona State.

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