Jedd Fisch saved his breath talking about the slew of injuries on Arizona’s roster following the Wildcats’ conference-opening win over Stanford.
During his routine news conference on Monday, Arizona’s head coach said he doesn’t “have much injury updates” on quarterback Jayden de Laura, running back Michael Wiley, linebacker Justin Flowe, nickelback Martell Irby and right guard Raymond Pulido — all of whom left Saturday with an injury. Starting defensive tackle Bill Norton was limited to PAT duties due to a shoulder injury.
“We’re still waiting to see. ... We’ll have no real idea if they’re going to be cleared to play or not until later on in the week,” Fisch said.
If de Laura, who exited the Stanford game with an ankle injury entering the fourth quarter, is inactive, second-year quarterback Noah Fifita, who completed all four of his passes and Stanford and led the UA on a go-ahead touchdown drive on Saturday, will start his first collegiate game this week against No. 7 Washington, the highest-ranked team in the stacked Pac-12.
No pressure, right?
“The beautiful thing about Noah is we’ve had him for the same amount of time as Jayden,” Fisch said.
De Laura transferred to Arizona from Washington State after two seasons in Pullman, while Fifita — one of four Anaheim Servite High School stars at the UA, along with wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, linebacker Jacob Manu and tight end Keyan Burnett — was an early enrollee true freshman.
“They both got on campus on the exact same day, which would’ve been January of a year ago,” Fisch said. “They’ve learned the offense the exact same way, they’ve been in the exact same meetings, and they have very similar skillsets in a lot of ways, so nothing changes.”
When Fifita was installed as QB1, Fisch’s offensive play-calling didn’t alter or tailor to the second-year quarterback playing his first meaningful snaps.
“The first play that he went in, I wanted to launch a post,” Fisch said. “We wound up throwing the check-down to (Jacob) Cowing for about 16 yards. I didn’t even flinch. That would’ve been the same exact call play-call I was going to call if Jayden wasn’t hurt. I don’t even flinch with Noah.
“Noah has never once given us any reason to not call what we want to call, execute what we want to execute. He’s an extremely talented player. He’s extremely confident and poised. ... Noah did a great job handling everything and I would have no concern whatsoever if he is starting for us on Saturday, but we’re really waiting to see how Jayden is.”
For snaps distributed in practice, “the only thing that would potentially change would be practice reps based upon Jayden’s health,” Fisch said. “So if the practice reps go more to Noah and less to Jayden, because he’s unable to go, that would be the only difference. In regards to game-planning, in regards to preparation, in regards to what we do, there is zero difference.”
There was a glaring difference between the two quarterbacks on Saturday, in what Fisch called “rhythm and timing,” which showed up in the Pro Football Focus grades. After his most efficient game as a Wildcat, when de Laura completed over 79% of his passes against UTEP, he was 14 of 26 passing (54%) against the worst passing defense in the Pac-12 — the only unit in the conference to average coughing up over 300 passing yards per game.
Part of de Laura’s struggles, as Pac-12 Networks analyst and former USC quarterbacks coach Yogi Roth observed, is Arizona’s quarterback drifting back too deep in the pocket, holding on to the ball and risking lost yards. PFF gave Arizona’s pass-blocking a 96.6 grade, which is by far the best of the season. De Laura’s “time-to-throw” (TTT) rate is 3.21 seconds, according to PFF.
“We just can’t hold the ball. We don’t need to do that,” Fisch said. “We need to trust our reads, we need to get the ball out of there quicker. There’s plenty of opportunities to not hold the ball. ... Now, there were a couple of times he had to for one reason or another, but I think part of the game is you have to play with great rhythm and timing. If you’re not playing with great rhythm and timing, and you’re late or you’re holding the ball, waiting for things to happen, you’re going to miss things.
“It’s going to feel like it’s lasting forever. There’s no excuse for drifting back 30 yards to throw the ball away on a third-and-10 on the (Stanford) 36-yard line and risk the possibility of a major negative play. We wound up throwing it away, but that’s not something we coached nor permit. But otherwise, I’m sure there are some plays that he would like to have back.
Added Fisch: “There are some plays I would like to have back that probably didn’t give him the best possible play to be successful on. The plays he was successful on, we were able to get the ball out of his hands quickly. ... For the most part, I would say we weren’t as crisp as we normally are.”
As for Fifita, his TTT is 2.23 seconds — nearly an entire second faster than de Laura.
“He’s extremely fast when he makes his decision, so he’s able to get the ball out of his hands at a very, very high tempo, and that’s one of the biggest things you look for when looking at NFL quarterbacks is how quickly can they speed it up at the top when somebody pops open,” Fisch said. “I would say Noah does a great job at speeding it up at the top and getting the ball out of his hands quickly.”
Plus, in Fifita’s 16 snaps at Stanford, the only plays that resulted in a loss of yards were the final two kneel-downs in “victory formation” to end the game. Fifita completed 15- and 18-yard passes, evaded blitzes, and served as a lead blocker for Jonah Coleman on a 9-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Currently, de Laura’s four-year experience and splash-playmaking ability will keep him in the driver’s seat of Arizona’s offense. Fifita’s time will come. Whenever it is.
“I don’t think that anybody I’ve ever coached has the unique ability to make some of the splash plays that Jayden can make, where he is avoiding sacks, getting out of bad situations, using his feet to his advantage, and then keeping his eyes downfield to hit an explosive play,” Fisch said. “But we haven’t seen that from Noah yet. He hasn’t had those opportunities yet.
“But for the most part, when you look at both players, they both are able to control the huddle, they’re both able to control the line of scrimmage, they’re both understanding of the offense, they both can make all of the throws on the field. ... All of the things for our offense, both of those guys can execute.”
Fisch, on Arizona’s 11 tackles for loss and five sacks at Stanford — the most since the Wildcats’ win over Colorado in 2018: “For the most part I thought our defense, once again, stepped up and did a fantastic job; tackles for losses, negative plays.”
Nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold for Arizona-Washington on Saturday, according to the UA. The “Red Out” game is expected to sell out, which would be the second sellout of the Fisch era.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Jedd Fisch confident in QB Noah Fifita if Jayden de Laura is out