No team in the Pac-12 needed a jolt of energy more than Arizona, and in the offseason, the Wildcats got it.
After three disappointing seasons under Kevin Sumlin, Arizona made a change last winter, hiring Jedd Fisch to try to return the program to a winning path.
“It’s personal for me, it’s personal for my family to be a part of this university and be a part of our program,” Fisch said at Pac-12 media day in Hollywood, Calif., on Tuesday. “My family has embraced Tucson, my wife and my three girls absolutely love it. We’re excited to make it home for a very long time.”
Leading up to preseason camp, BuffZone.com will preview each of Colorado’s 2021 opponents and in this installment, we look at the Arizona Wildcats, who went 0-5 during the 2020 season.
Sumlin, who had successful tenures at Houston and Texas A&M, never got it rolling at Arizona and lost his last 12 games with the Wildcats. The finale was a humiliating 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State on Dec. 11.
Thanks to Fisch, there is a renewed outlook going into this season.
“We’ve worked extremely hard over the course of the last seven months to not just change the culture but create our own culture,” Fisch said. “We talk about from the very beginning an expectation of really taking a mindset of becoming a pro. When we say ‘becoming a pro,’ we talk to our players about being purposeful, being resilient and original in everything they do. We talk to our team about the values that we have in our program and how important it is that we don’t need to live in a world of rules as long as we live in a world of values.”
Creating a new culture often takes time, but Arizona does have a recent history of success. Before a current string of three straight losing seasons, the Wildcats went to eight bowls in 10 years from 2008-17.
Although he has yet to coach a game, Fisch has at least changed the attitude.
“I was the authentic me,” he said. “I didn’t know what existed truthfully. I didn’t really know exactly what it was like. I didn’t come from the program. I didn’t get elevated up. For me, it was to come in and be me, hire the guys that I believed in, and make it our program. Where I am the most grateful is we had an athletic director and a president that allowed me to do that. That’s how we were able to make the significant changes we made in such a short period of time.”
Fisch, who coached the quarterbacks for the New England Patriots last year, hired highly respected coordinator Don Brown to lead the defense. He also brought in Brennan Carroll, the son of Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, to lead the offense.
The staff will work with a mix of returners and newcomers and a top priority will be to find a starting quarterback.
Last year’s starter, Grant Gunnell, transferred to Memphis. Freshmen Will Plummer is back, however, after getting some valuable experience.
Another freshman, Gunner Cruz, will compete for the job, along with Jordan McCloud, a transfer from South Florida. McCloud started 17 games at USF.
“We’ve got a nice three-headed monster, with Jordan, Gunner and Will,” Fisch said. “We’d like to see one of them step up and be the guy. Right now we’ll go 33, 33, 33 for a 99-play practice.
“Whoever moves the ball the best in every period we have. Who moves the football, who gets us down in the red zone, who scores touchdowns. 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. See if we can move the ball. Whoever does that will be the starting quarterback.”
Arizona has talent at receiver and some experience at running back, as well as three starters back on the offensive line.
The defense was bolstered through the transfer portal, while outside linebacker Anthony Pandy returns after leading the team in tackles.
While not much is expected of Arizona this year – the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South by media that covers the conference – Fisch is eager to get his program going.
“We recognize the landscape of college football,” he said. “We recognize the landscape of building a program. We are excited to do it. We’ve embraced it. We believe in it. We believe Tucson is a special place.”
Date with CU: Oct. 16, time TBA, at Folsom Field in Boulder
Head coach: Jedd Fisch, 1st year (0-0; 1-1 career)
Series: CU leads 15-8
Wildcats in 2020: 0-5, 0-5 Pac-12
Offensive players to watch (2020 statistics):
- RB Drake Anderson, So., 5-11, 184 (Transfer from Northwestern)
- WR Stanley Berryhill III, Jr., 5-10, 181 (23 rec., 227 yards, 3 TD)
- WR Jamarye Joiner, So., 6-1, 207 (12 rec., 111 yards, 1 TD)
- OL Donovan Laie, Jr., 6-5, 322 (29 consecutive starts; 25 at LT, 4 at LG)
- QB Will Plummer, Fr., 6-1, 205 (43-of-80, 388 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT)
- RB Michael Wiley, So., 5-11, 202 (31 att., 222 yards, 3 TD)
- TE Bryce Wolma, Sr., 6-4, 234 (4 rec., 4 yards)
Defensive players to watch:
- DT Aaron Blackwell, Sr., 6-3, 298 (6 tackles, 2 tackles for loss)
- DE Jalen Harris, Jr., 6-5, 258 (18 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 pass breakups)
- DT Trevon Mason, Sr., 6-5, 315 (20 tackles, 1.5 TFL)
- OLB Anthony Pandy, Sr., 6-1, 222 (30 tackles, 2 INT)
- LB Jerry Roberts, Jr., 6-4, 235 (Transfer from Bowling Green)
- CB Christian Roland-Wallace, So., 5-11, 202 (26 tackles, 3 PBU)
- CB Isaiah Rutherford, So., 6-0, 192 (Transfer from Notre Dame)
Notable: Arizona has a 12-game losing streak, dating back to a 35-30 win at Colorado on Oct. 5, 2019. … CU won last year’s meeting, 24-13, in Tucson. … Arizona is 7-2 against the Buffs in the last nine meetings, with both losses in Tucson. The Wildcats have won four straight in Boulder. … In his only other head coach experience, Fisch went 1-1 as interim head coach for UCLA in 2017. … Fisch spent the previous three years in the NFL and in 2008 was the receivers coach for the Denver Broncos. … Last year at USF, quarterback Jordan McCloud started seven games, throwing for 1,341 yards and nine touchdowns, with two interceptions. He made 10 starts in 2019, throwing for 1,429 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. … In three seasons at Northwestern, Anderson had 228 carries for 926 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes for 56 yards. … Roberts started 15 of the 16 games he played for Bowling Green the last two seasons, piling up 92 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. … Rutherford played in three games for Notre Dame last year. He was a top-100 recruit nationally coming out of high school in 2019. … Kicker Lucas Havrisik returns after hitting six of seven field goals last year.