TUCSON – Optimism and confidence never run higher for college football programs than in springtime. But there were plenty of signs around Arizona’s annual spring football game to suggest Wildcats fans have good reason for high hopes in 2023.
Maybe the most promising sign was the size of the crowd at Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats set an attendance record for their spring game, drawing 23,273 fans who came to see what kind of potential third-year coach Jedd Fisch’s program has at a school long known for its basketball program.
“It’s a great day to be a Wildcat,” Fisch said. “I’m looking forward to making Tucson the football town it should be. I think we’re getting closer to that. I think we can start packing the house every week, and I think we can make this place known for football.”
Each year under Fisch, the program has seen improvement. In Fisch’s first season in 2021, the Wildcats finished with a lowly 1-11 record. They showed flashes of potential in his second, improving to 5-7.
The four-win improvement was the third-largest win increase in program history. The season was highlighted by a road upset of 12th-ranked UCLA and a victory over their in-state rival Arizona State to win the Territorial Cup game for the first time since 2016.
Fisch has momentum behind him entering his third year, however in order to ensure that momentum continues, his team will have to continue to put in work between now and Arizona’s Sept. 2 season opener against Northern Arizona.
“These player-run practices this summer are going to be critical to their success,” Fisch said. “We are going to make sure that we stay on top of every aspect of their growth. What we are going to see is, ‘Can we have a better training camp than we have had over the last two years?’”
A key aspect to Fisch’s success last season was Arizona’s dramatically improved passing attack, which ranked sixth in the nation in 2022. And this year’s team will feature many of the same key contributors to that attack, which could determine whether the Wildcats compete for a bowl game – or more.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura returns under center after throwing for 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns against 13 interceptions last year. The team also brings back two of the top receiving threats from last season in Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan.
Coach Fisch said that his offense looks ready to perform at a high level again this year.
“The offense picked up where they left off,” he said.
De Laura came away from the spring game feeling even more confident about his abilities heading into the season.
“I felt like I’ve done way better than last spring,” he said. “I feel way more comfortable compared to last season.”
While the offense was potent last season, the Wildcats struggled on the other side of the ball, ranking 125th in the nation and yielding 467.7 yards per game.
Fisch is optimistic that the defense will take a huge leap forward this season.
“The defense has made one of the bigger jumps I have ever seen,” he said in his news conference following the spring game.
The Wildcats made a big addition on the defensive side of the ball, and he is a big part of the expectations for improvement.
Junior Oregon transfer Justin Flowe is a former five-star recruit, who was rated as the top inside linebacker in the country in the 2020 high school class.
Flowe felt a strong connection with his new team from the moment he arrived in Tucson.
“As soon as I came in, I felt like this team – we all just love each other and want to be the best we can be,” he said.
Flowe believes he can make an immediate impact on second-year defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s squad.
“Johnny Nansen is a great coach, and I just love the energy and passion he brings, because I love to bring it, too,” Flowe said.
While the season opener is still months away, the Wildcats are optimistic that they’re ready to take another step forward in Fisch’s third year.
“I feel like this year is going to be crazy,” Flowe said. “I can’t wait.”