With one game to go against The Team Up North this Saturday, the remarkable third regular season of the Jedd Fisch era is coming to a close. While Arizona’s development has been a hot-button topic since… well you know, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Dominate the state” and “Keep them home” are typically introductory interview winners; however, it is what you do with the talent you have, that will draw the eyeballs.
Jedd Fisch’s time at Arizona has seen a meteoric rise from taking over one of the worst programs in Power 5. From laughing stock, to now potentially 60 minutes of football against their bitter rivals from playing in the present iteration of the Pac-12 Conferences final football championship game.
Now of course we need some significant help Friday night from Oregon State for that chance to happen, but the fact we are talking about a conference championship two years removed from being in the doldrums of NCAA Football is nothing short of remarkable.
How we got there is a testament to finding the right head coach at the right time, replacing a Defensive Coordinator after one season for the perfect fit, and finding the right key recruit (Noah Fifita) from the shadows of Disneyland. Just like that, these Wildcats stepped on the accelerator and look poised to make some noise to finish out 2023, and in moving to the Big XII in 2024.
The Right Staff at the Right Time
While President Robert Robbins may have his mind on 240 million other things presently, he deserves a ton of credit along with Dave Heeke for sticking with their conviction much to the chagrin of the fanbase in a career assistant who never had stayed more than two seasons at one place before his next stop in Coach Fisch.
Jedd sure won over the press conference upon being hired and bought himself some time, but it was the moves he made to fill his staff that will likely be the key part of his legacy.
Fisch made it an important part of his plan to bring in coaches who knew Arizona Football at its best by bringing in Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley aboard on his inaugural staff, and then this past season brought back another key piece of Arizona Football lore by welcoming back Duane Akina.
He also stuck quickly in his tenure to bring back Brandon Sanders as a key part of rebuilding the alumni support as the Coordinator of Football Alumni and High School Relations, and he rounded out his Arizona ties with Tedy Bruschi as a Senior Advisor to the Head Coach. Beyond that, he built a plan around keeping arguably the most marketable Tight End in history, Rob Gronkowski involved with the program, though not in any official capacity.
When you look at the growth of the offensive line, Brennan Carroll has shown why programs were poking around a bit on him last offseason. And with the way the defense has taken significant steps forward this season, Johnny Nansen is likely to be a hot commodity this offseason as well if he looks to take over the reins at a program.
These guys are not even remotely targets if they can’t develop, and as the incoming talent pool starts to become enhanced, they will only be leaned on more to continue to develop their respective sides of the ball at a higher level.
Other coaches like Jordan Paopao, Jimmy Dougherty, Kevin Cummings, Scottie Graham, and Jason Kaufusi have all also likely opened themselves to the possibility of enhanced roles if they so choose to take that step.
Paopao has not only had a heavy impact with Special Teams but also in developing a breakout star in Tanner McLachlan in the process as he has grown from being a relative unknown, to potentially putting himself in line to hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
The job Dougherty has done not only in the development of Noah Fifita but also in his ability to keep Jayden de Laura engaged after losing his starting spot is nothing short of impressive.
Cummings may have had the easiest time as an assistant so far by having Tetairoa McMillan and Jacob Cowing; however, as T-Mac continues to grow, guys like Kevin Green Jr., Montana Lemonious-Craig, and Malachi Riley have each had moments of their own to showcase just how deep that room is.
With Coach Graham, the story may very well start and stop with one name: Jonah Coleman. The growth in Coleman’s game in 2023 has significantly diversified the Wildcat offense, as it has opened up Michael Wiley to be more of a receiving and swing guy, and also when given the opportunity Rayshawn “Speedy” Luke can step in and be the slash and dash type of speed back, which allows Arizona to hit teams with a high quality running back in any type of game they need to play.
With Jason Kaufusi, you see many guys on that second level of the defense like Jacob Manu and Justin Flowe crediting him regularly for making sure he gets them in the right spots.
However, the most under-appreciated hiring of the football staff though, might just very well be in the weight room with the Director of Strength and Conditioning, Tyler Owens, as he is never short on the hype and passion for the Wildcats. Arizona is very lucky to have plucked him out of Tuscaloosa to lead the resurrection of the program from that side of things.
The Right Families to Drive The Momentum
The unsung heroes and keys to everything, are the families of the players that have made this turnaround so special.
You have Mrs. Fifita who was the star of the 2022 recruiting cycle after Noah committed to the Wildcats. Keeping family as the important part, she was always mentioning to T-Mac and family the entire time, and that he would be welcomed with open arms, even before the change of coach at Oregon that ultimately opened the door for his path to Tucson.
When I was at the game against Oregon State, you could see just how important the other players’ families were to each other as they were regularly seen enjoying each other’s company as they awaited the team’s arrival at Arizona Stadium.
You can also see the passion of the parents on social media, as they are regularly engaging with fans, alums, and opponents alike as they continually showcase not only their pride in their sons, but also in the program. As a whole, you can tell they trust and believe in what this coaching staff shared as their vision during the recruiting process.
One thing sure appears abundantly clear with this familial group of Wildcats, they embrace each other, believe in the vision, and showcase just how impactful things can be when you find the right student-athletes at the right time.
Bear Down, and Beat the Sun Devils!