All first-year coaches face a difficult assignment in their debut, but that's especially the case in Tucson, as Arizona's Jedd Fisch inherits one of the toughest roster situations for the 2021 coaching carousel among Power 5 programs. The Wildcats haven't won a game since Oct. 5, 2019 and enter the '21 season with numerous personnel question marks. Fisch has hired a good staff and tapped into the program's past to get things pointed in the right direction. Considering the roster and program situation, Fisch deserves time to get things turned around in Tucson. But it’s also important for the coaching staff to show progress in year one and find some things to build on in 2022 and '23.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that's a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it's never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here's an early look at five personnel question marks for Fisch to address in 2021:
Arizona Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Jedd Fisch in 2021
1. Continue to Scour the Transfer Portal for Help
Arizona was the only Pac-12 team to not have a player selected with first or second-team honors on the post-2020 all-conference squad. Additionally, the Wildcats enter '21 on a 12-game losing streak, which ranks as the second-longest in college football. Finding help through the transfer portal is essential as Fisch and his staff hope to show the program is trending in the right direction going into 2022. The Wildcats already have a handful of transfers coming in next season but more help is needed.
2. The Quarterback Room
Fisch's background on offense and working with quarterbacks is going to come in handy this offseason. Only one of the three quarterbacks that attempted a pass (Will Plummer) last year is slated to return in 2021. Plummer spent '20 as the backup to Grant Gunnell but played in three games (with one start). During that playing time, Plummer threw for 388 yards, completed 53.8 percent of his throws, averaged only 4.9 yards per attempt, and tossed three picks. The quarterback room is going to get crowded with Plummer and Kevin Doyle (no attempts in 2020) returning, along with additions via the transfer portal in Jordan McCloud (USF) and Gunner Cruz (Washington State). A couple of walk-ons are also in the mix, but the starter is likely to be Plummer, McCloud or Cruz. How fast can Fisch find the right answer here?
3. What's the Offensive Style?
Fisch has a variety of experiences and scheme knowledge thanks to coaching at a handful of stops in the NFL and in college. How will that translate to the Arizona offense in 2021? While the offensive line wasn't one of the better units in the Pac-12 last fall, there are four starters slated to return. Additionally, Michael Wiley, Nathan Tilford, Drake Anderson and Darrius Smith form a solid backfield. With that personnel in place, it wouldn't be surprising to see the offensive staff lean a little more on those two position groups early on, especially as the quarterback position is settled. Arizona also has weapons at receiver with Stanley Berryhill III, Tayvian Cunningham, Jamarye Joiner and Brian Casteel, along with tight end Bryce Wolma, so finding ways to get the ball to playmakers in space is crucial.
4. Find Pass Rushers
When a defensive coordinator's nickname is "Dr. Blitz," that's probably all you need to know about his philosophy or scheme outlook. New coordinator Don Brown isn't afraid to be aggressive when it comes to scheme or finding ways to get to the quarterback. And that's an immediate need for the Wildcats after generating just two sacks in 2020 and only 17 in '19. Since 2011, only one player – Scooby Wright – has eclipsed double-digit sacks in Tucson. Last season, Paris Shand and Roy Lopez each registered one sack, while 15 different players accumulated a tackle for a loss – but no defender had more than four. Although Michigan's defense took a step back in 2020, Brown is a good hire for Fisch and should help this defense improve in '21. But taking a step forward will require this unit to identify a couple of players who can create havoc off the edge right away.
5. Get the Defense Trending in the Right Direction
Defense has been a longstanding issue for the Wildcats. Arizona has not finished higher than sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense over the last 10 seasons. Additionally, the Wildcats finished last in the league for two years in a row in this category, while also giving up nearly seven yards (6.7) per play and a whopping 270.6 rushing yards a game in 2020. Brown's experience and track record should help immediately, but as mentioned above, the defense needs difference-makers to emerge and question marks remain at every level. Arizona brings back most of the defensive players who received snaps last season and transfers Treshaun Heyward (LB), Gunner Maldonado (safety) and Isaiah Rutherford (cornerback) will push for playing time or bolster the depth. Brown isn't going to solve all of the issues in his first year but getting the scheme implemented and building a foundation for 2022 would be a step in the right direction.
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