Jedd Fisch is bringing an NFL-style offense to Arizona. It’s different from what the Wildcats have run in the recent past — and from what much of college football utilizes these days. It could give the UA a competitive advantage.
But none of it will matter if the Wildcats can’t execute the most basic foundational element of each play — the snap from the center to the quarterback.
That’s been a focal point during the first week of spring practice as Arizona transitions from a spread, shotgun offense to one that incorporates under-center snaps; three-, five- and seven-stop drops by the quarterback; and turn-your-back-to-the-defense play-action passes.
“We’re throwing everything at them right now,” passing-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty said. “Everything’s new to them, from taking a snap under center to the terminology to just a lot of different things.”
One of the quarterbacks competing for the starting job, Gunner Cruz, said after Thursday’s practice that he hadn’t taken a snap from under center since junior high. The upcoming season will be his third in college after Cruz spent the past two seasons at Washington State.
“It had been a while,” Cruz said. “A little bit of an adjustment period, but it’s always good to learn new things, building that relationship with all the different centers and taking snaps different ways.”
Cruz might be underestimating his personal adjustment period. He began his college career playing for Mike Leach, one of the founding fathers of the “Air Raid” offense. Cruz then played last season under Nick Rolovich, who runs a run-and-shoot system. Both put the quarterback in the shotgun on every play and, more often than not, feature four wide receivers at a time.
Fisch has said his offense will have the QB under center around 35% of the time. It also makes significant use of the tight end. Some formations feature two at a time.
“Pretty different,” Cruz said. “All three, great offenses. I enjoyed my time that I spent in all of them. Here we’re under center, there’s a little bit more verbiage in the play call, we use a tight end.
“But I think it’s been great. I’ve been able to take all these different experiences, all these different offenses, and kind of put it together in a way that I can understand the game.”
The quarterbacks and centers have operated smoothly for the most part, although Cruz and center Josh Baker ran a lap around the field at one point Thursday after a bungled exchange. Cruz discussed, and even demonstrated, how much the coaches are focusing on the fundamentals of the snap.
“Every part of it’s getting coached,” Cruz said, “our stance under center, how our hands are, how we’re putting pressure through the bottom hand.”
Once the ball is secured, the quarterbacks have to execute the proper footwork, whether handing the ball off, faking a handoff or dropping to pass. As with every other aspect of the offense, Fisch and his staff want the QBs to get to a point where they aren’t thinking about it.
“It’s definitely different for these guys when you’re under center and you’re doing drills from under center,” Fisch said. “You have to not count your steps. But you’re told, ‘Hey, this is a five-step, this is a seven-step, this is a three-step.’
“Don’t be the guy that counts steps; just be the guy that understands it. It’s going to come from a process of ... repetition, and we just need to get them to the point that they have muscle memory. It’s gonna take a bit a little bit longer for them to get there.”
That’s the tricky part for the coaching staff. They understand that it’s going to take time for quarterbacks, centers and others who have been operating in spread-type systems since their high school days. But they also want to push the players as hard as they can. Fisch doesn’t often reference Arizona’s recent past — if ever — but there’s an implicit understanding that the Wildcats are starting from the bottom of the Pac-12.
“We’re in fast-forward mode every single day,” Fisch said. “We don’t give our guys a break. We put the pedal to the metal. We tell them every day that we’re playing in September against BYU, and whether or not they’ve been having the same staff, whether they’ve been working together or not for a bunch of years, that doesn’t really matter when it comes down to kickoff.
“We have to try to catch up with all the teams in the Pac 12, with all the teams that we’re playing. We recognize that, we understand it, we embrace it. But we can’t really slow down at all.”
Wide, wide world
Arizona has nine scholarship wide receivers, a relatively low number compared to recent seasons. One of those players, Jaden Mitchell, has been working on the side after having knee surgery last season.
None of the Wildcats’ known incoming freshmen is listed as a wide receiver, although multipurpose athlete Anthony Simpson could end up there.
So would 10 be enough?
“I’m coming from a league (the NFL) where you’d only dress four or five, maybe six if you’re going to count a special-teams player, for a game,” Fisch said. “So I consider it a huge bonus that we have as many players as we have here.”
The increased emphasis on tight ends also mitigates the need for an abundance of wideouts. Arizona will have six scholarship tight ends when freshman Colby Powers arrives in June.
Fisch has unabashedly expressed his support for other UA teams, in particular the women’s basketball team.
The latest illustration: He moved Saturday’s practice up an hour, from 11 a.m. to 10 a.m., so he can catch a flight to San Antonio to watch the Wildcats play Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
“Going to go trying to support the women’s basketball program,” Fisch said. “In order for me to get to the game, we’re going to bump it up an hour.”
Fisch presumably will fly on a chartered plane with other UA athletic officials and donors. The Wildcats and Aggies are scheduled to tip off at 5 p.m.
UA senior forward Sam Thomas recognized Fisch’s gesture after video of his post-practice interview was posted on Twitter.
“First week of spring ball and still makes time to support WBB,” Thomas tweeted. “That’s dedication.”
- Tailback Michael Wiley and linebacker Derick Mourning were full participants Thursday after being limited in the first practice Tuesday. Defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell, linebacker Anthony Pandy and defensive backs Isaiah Mays and Rhedi Short were among those limited to side work.
- Fisch after watching the film of the opening practice: “We need to get a lot better. We need to continue to improve on our execution. We need to continue to improve upon our effort. And we need to make sure that we play with a great enthusiasm, that we attack every play — every time the ball’s in the air, every time that we’re running the football, that we’ve got as many people as we can swarming the ball. That’s what we need to improve upon the most.”
- Arizona will practice in pads for the first time Saturday. The session is open to the first 200 fans who arrive at the Dick Tomey Practice Fields.