Arizona opened spring practice on Wednesday, the first of 15 workouts over the next six weeks. It was the first chance for the coaching staff to see, in one place, the roster it has massively overhauled.
And it was hard not to notice the difference.
“I would say this, not just the freshmen and the transfers, but our (whole) team looks a lot bigger to me,” coach Jedd Fisch said, crediting strength and conditioning coordinator Tyler Owens. “And they are bigger, another year with TO. TO does an unbelievable job with the strength program. I think anytime you ask a player about the program they talk about how good our strength program is. You can see it in our guys’ body types.”
One of the most noticeable areas of change was at wide receiver, where 6-foot-4 Tetairoa McMillan, 6-3 AJ Jones and 6-2 Ma’jon Wright all stood out for their size. Same goes for freshman tight end Keyan Burnett, who is listed at 6-5 and 225 pounds.
Several returning players looked like they had added muscle, including 6-7, 252-pound edge rusher Jason Harris, 6-5, 328-pound offensive lineman Jordan Morgan, 6-3, 287-pound defensive lineman Nahe Sulunga and 6-3, 207-pound linebacker Ammon Allen.
Allen, a walk-on who was at Viper last season, has added 24 pounds since joining the program last summer and saw a lot of first-team reps on Wednesday.
“I think Ammon Allen is going to be a very good football player,” Fisch said. “We got very fortunate to get him here as a non-scholarship player at first. He’s … built himself from a safety down, now he’s a linebacker and he looks to be one that can get bigger, too.”
As for other newcomers, running back Jonah Coleman looked like a miniature tank at 5-8 and 216 pounds—“Jonah is gonna be a hard guy to tackle,” Fisch said—and cornerback Ephesians Prysock has great length at 6-3 that will be a huge asset once he adds to his 174-pound body.
It was only one practice, but that’s all it took to see just how big a deal it was that Arizona managed to sign McMillan, the highest-rated prospect in program history. Nearly every ball thrown his way was hauled in, several of them requiring only one hand and a few that were likely a harbinger of things to come.
Could be a very familiar sight for Arizona fans over the coming years: @jayden_delaura to @TMAC96795 with the one-handed snag. @Sports360AZ pic.twitter.com/HhdQ7pTllD
“I thought he had a very good practice today,” Fisch said of McMillan, who flipped from Oregon in December. “I think he clearly shows that he’s got tremendous ball skills, tremendous opportunity to make plays for us down the field. But on the same token, there’s a lot for him to learn, there’s a lot of the game that he has to understand going against Division I DB. When he has to go against Stukes, C-Ro, Rud, it’s going to be different. He’s gonna have to keep building against all those guys and keep competing, but I certainly was proud of how he played. And I expect a lot from him this season.”
This is the second year of Fisch’s offensive system, but the first for quarterbacks Jayden de Laura and Noah Fifita. Yet neither looked overwhelmed in their first practice, a far cry from how Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer looked at the outset last spring.
“I think one of the biggest things, speaking on Jayden, is he did play 17 games in college football before, and those other guys didn’t,” Fisch said. “Gunner played, I think, 10 plays of a college football game once and Will played maybe one and a half games or whatever it might have been. So I think the learning curve is very different just because of the fact that they have a lot of inventory, or Jayden has a lot of inventory to pull from. As for Noah, he’s just a gamer. I didn’t feel a big learning curve today.”
Cruz’s surgically repaired thumb didn’t appear to impact his throwing, while Jordan McCloud—who has switched from No. 4 to No. 3—also looked solid less than five months removed from ankle surgery and knee rehab.
“Really, really happy about the quarterback room,” Fisch said. “Excited for the way they played today. I think we had a lot of plays out there on the field that we could do a lot better on, I don’t know what our completion percentages were or anything like that. But I saw the ball leaving the guys’ hands, and it looked pretty good. So it gives me a good feeling that we’ll be able to find that quarterback, move the ball and play better on offense.”
On Tuesday Fisch confirmed that wide receiver Jamarye Joiner and defensive lineman Kyon Barrs would both miss the spring because of foot surgeries, while also noting a few other players who would be limited or temporarily unavailable.
A couple more were added to those lists on Wednesday. Offensive lineman Josh Baker, who was seen taking some pre-practice snaps at center with his right arm in a sling, will miss the spring with a pectoral injury that he had to get “taken care of,” Fisch said.
Linebacker Malik Reed, whom Fisch had previously said was penciled in as one of the first-team linebackers for spring, is working through a “slight, slight” hamstring injury that saw, while UCLA defensive line transfer Tiaoalii Savea was absent due to a minor illness.
Both Reed and Savea are expected back when Arizona returns to practice March 15, taking off for Spring Break after spending Thursday and Friday in meetings and the weight room.