The Arizona Wildcats’ offseason of change is almost over. Training camp is set to begin in a week.
First-year coach Jedd Fisch has overhauled Arizona’s organizational structure. He has transformed the attitude within the program. The UA even remodeled its offices and weight room at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
What about the team itself? We’ll get a good, long look at the 2021 Wildcats during the first two weeks of camp, which are open to the media and public. Despite a positive offseason and encouraging signs during spring practice, Arizona — which has lost 12 straight games and was a nearly unanimous choice to finish last again in the Pac-12 South — has many questions to answer.
We’ll explore the biggest ones in an eight-part, position-by-position preview, broken down as follows: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers/Vipers, defensive backs and special teams.
To add a little spice to the series, we’ll also rank the positions. The votes were cast by staff writers Michael Lev and Justin Spears.
Position rank: Eighth (out of eight)
Biggest camp question: Who will take the first snap against BYU on Sept. 4?
Arizona will have a different Week 1 starter for the third consecutive season. It’s still anybody’s guess as to who that will be.
Fisch termed the battle a “nice three-headed monster.” Transfer Jordan McCloud entered the fray this summer after another transfer, Gunner Cruz, and returnee Will Plummer split reps in spring. Fisch said the practice snaps would be divided into thirds at the outset of camp.
Although he has the most college experience by far — 20 appearances at South Florida, including 17 starts – McCloud has considerable ground to make up. Cruz and Plummer got a head start on learning Fisch’s pro-style system — a big departure from what they were used to — in spring ball.
Asked if McCloud was at a disadvantage because he didn’t arrive until June, Fisch said: “I would hope so, because those other guys, if they didn’t get anything out of the coaching in the spring, we’ve got major problems.”
Cruz and Plummer undoubtedly benefited from spring ball, where they took countless snaps under center and relayed plays laced with verbiage from coaches to their teammates. They also endured growing pains. Plummer seemed to fall behind Cruz early before rallying late; by the end of spring practice, they looked equally comfortable running the offense.
Cruz, who transferred to Arizona from Washington State, brings excellent size to the position at 6-5, 224. He has a strong arm and maneuvers well in the pocket. He continues to work to quicken his release.
Plummer, who got an unexpected crash course on college football as a freshman last season, has more mobility and can execute off-platform throws. After looking out of sorts early in spring camp, he started to show his playmaking ability over the final two weeks.
Between them, Cruz and Plummer have made four collegiate appearances. McCloud was USF’s primary starter the past two seasons, passing for 2,770 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 357 yards and five scores.
The coaches have only limited interactions with the players during the offseason, so Fisch hasn’t had a chance to see McCloud run the offense yet.
“The hardest position to evaluate without a football would be the quarterback position, because you can’t ever see them throw,” Fisch said. “But we have had that two hours a week that we have the opportunity to meet with him (and) also be able to do some drill work. We’ve been able to do some team runs and evaluate and watch how he is there. I love just to see how he interacts with his teammates. Jordan is doing good.”
Although the competition has expanded, Fisch hasn’t changed the criteria he will use to choose a starter. It’s still as simple as “who moves the ball the best.”
“Who moves the football, who gets us down in the red zone, who scores touchdowns,” Fisch said. “We’ll have a lot of competitive practices. I believe we’re going to have a very good defense this year. Let’s see what we can do (against it). See if we can move the ball. Whoever does that will be the starting quarterback.”