Arizona Football: Wildcats' 2021 Spring Preview

Wildcats starting over from scratch under new head coach Jedd Fisch

To call Arizona's hire of Jedd Fisch surprising would be underselling general consensus. After a blistering suffered against rival Arizona State, Kevin Sumlin was released and the position was open barely long enough for the content machines to churn out lists with suggestions like Brent Brennan, Bryan Harsin and Joe Salave'a.

 

Fisch's hire is unorthodox, to be sure, but comparable to those aforementioned Sun Devils and the 2018 hire of Herm Edwards in a few key ways. First is the shock with which it was met, and in plenty of cases, derision. Second, Fisch comes to the Grand Canyon State with a bevy of NFL experience — and a plan to introduce professional management to a college program.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona's Spring Practice

 

1. A host of new faces, but plenty of old

Wholesale change sweeps Tucson this offseason, starting with the new coaching staff. Fisch arrives with some Pac-12 experience, having pulled UCLA's dismal 2016 offense out of the depths in '17. Otherwise, though, he's completely new to the collegiate Western scene.

 

Part of the coach's efforts in rebuilding the program was rooted in pulling from its past success, however. To that end, Fisch brought in a variety of past Wildcats greats in various roles. All-Americans Ricky Hunley and Chuck Cecil will coach the defensive line and defensive backs. Tedy Bruschi, arguably the greatest player in program history, will serve as a consultant to Fisch.

 

2. Restarting the Swarm

The mindset in bringing back past greats like Cecil, Hunley and Bruschi is recapturing the dominance of Arizona's defense in the '80s and '90s. With the exception of a brief period with now-Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops as coordinator, Wildcat defenses for the last two decades have been... porous, is a kind description.

 

Arizona is a long way from reforming the Desert Swarm, as it was nicknamed under the late, great Dick Tomey. The coming year will be about setting the foundation to get back to that point, however.

 

3. Revamping the offense

When Rich Rodriguez replaced Mike Stoops in 2012, Arizona had already been amid a shift in offensive philosophies. Sonny Dykes coordinated the UA offense in 2009, and the Wildcats' embrace of the air raid put up points. Rodriguez's shift to a more balanced spread with a heightened emphasis on the run made Arizona one of the more exciting offensive teams in the nation.

 

Kevin Sumlin's tenure failed to reach the standard set from the coach's own time at Houston and Texas A&M, as well as the bar the end of the Stoops era and Rodriguez's tenure established. The new staff arrives looking to regroup, but Arizona isn't necessarily in need of a total overhaul on that side of the ball.

 

Grant Gunnell is gone at quarterback; his place in the lineup would have made for a situation comparable to Fisch's guidance of the UCLA offense with Josh Rosen. But, UA's run-game situation is not nearly as dire as what Fisch inherited in Los Angeles, with Bam Smith and Michael Wiley in the fold.

 

Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll is an unknown commodity as a collegiate play-caller, but he's not inheriting an empty cupboard.

 

4. Quarterback competition

The transfer portal takes, but the transfer portal gives. Such is the reality for Arizona, with Grant Gunnell opting to head to Memphis, but UA adding a pair of potential starters from FBS programs. Gunner Cruz makes the move from the Palouse to the Sonoran Desert, transferring in from Washington State.

 

Jordan McCloud comes to Arizona from USF, where in his last game of 2020, he threw four touchdowns and more than 400 yards against UCF. McCloud brings with him more experience, but the competition throughout the offseason should be exciting.

 

5. "It's Personal"

Giving up 70 points in the Territorial Cup shellacking vs. Arizona State was a time for self-reflection within the Arizona program. From that moment, and with the initially derided hire of Fisch, UA adopted the theme "It's Personal" for the coming season.

 

Arizona heads into the 2021 campaign having not won a Pac-12 game since early October 2019. The Wildcats are at a lull the program hasn't experienced since the forgettable John Mackovic era of the early 2000s, when his abbreviated tenure erased the momentum established under Larry Smith and Dick Tomey for the two decades prior.

 

By simple virtue of adopting the mentality of the Tomey days, Arizona's new era has nowhere to go but up. It will be a long climb, though, with spring marking some of the first, small steps.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics, courtesy of arizonawildcats.com)

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