Arizona Football Offensive Preview
What do you do when your team goes 1-11 with the one win being over a Covid-depleted Cal team? Replace the whole team with transfers, of course!
Last year, Arizona lost to an FCS team in the first time in their history, to an FCS team that ended with a losing record. This year, they defeated the defending FCS champs. Progress, right?
Arizona is led by last year’s starting quarterback for Washington State, Jayden de Laura.
Despite the miserable 1-11 season (and I’m still mad about that one win), Arizona recruited the 3rd best class in the Pac-12, headlined by Rivals 5-star wide receiver Tetairoa “T-Mac” McMillan. There’s a lot of reason for optimism for coach Jedd Fisch and Arizona fans.
Arizona opened the season with a surprisingly dominant win against an SDSU team that went 12-2 last year, a loss to a very talented Mississippi State team, and a win over the defending FCS champions, North Dakota State. Cal is probably not going to be able to out-talent Arizona the way Mike Leach and Mississippi State did, so where does that leave us? Well, probably with a tough game that can go either way.
Arizona is led by former Wazzu quarterback and 2021 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the year (“Offensive” meaning his work on offense, not his work behind the wheel), Jayden de Laura.
The first, most obvious strength of Jayden de Laura is his escapability in the pocket. I mean, if I’m a Madden/EA developer determining player stats, I am putting this one in the high 90s. Even against great defensive lines, Jayden de Laura is extremely difficult to bring down:
I mean really, there’s no possible explanation for the following play, other than someone was repeatedly mashing the “juke” button here:
Jayden de Laura is fantastic with his movement in the pocket, and he deftly avoids sacks. His main drawback, however, is that it almost seems like he prefers to play like this: he loves to throw on the run, off-balance. The announcers were absolutely trashing de Laura for the above play, but he avoided multiple sacks and still managed a throw that hit his receiver in the hands— I don’t believe the above interception was on him. Had it been caught, the same announcers would have been fawning over him for this play.
For whatever reason (my best guess is a direct order from a coach), Jayden de Laura used all of his escapability to buy time to make throws and big time plays. Many times, he very clearly had open space in front of him that he ignored to instead try to launch a pass 40+ yards downfield. That is, until the North Dakota State game last week, where he finally started to take the easy yards in front of him:
QB Jayden de Laura is obviously a dangerous player on his feet, and it seems like Arizona finally started to recognize and take advantage of this.
Let’s focus on the positives for a moment. Jayden de Laura is extremely confident in his throws. Is this a positive? Well, it depends.
Here he is firing a bullet into a very small window to his receiver:
And here he is dodging a sack, and throwing off-balance on the run with fantastic touch on his throw to the endzone:
I’ll come back to this habit of throwing off-balance in a bit, but de Laura absolutely loves rolling out of the pocket and throwing across his body, which is generally discouraged by most coaches for obvious reasons.
QB Jayden de Laura generally handles pressure very well, although his arm strength is questionable at times (likely as a result of his wacky mechanics). Here he dodges pressure but underthrows his receiver, who makes the catch anyway:
Here he again successfully implements a QB scramble drill (note the off-balance throw):
I have been showing you highlights, but now it’s time to take a look at situations where these bad habits don’t work out. Jayden de Laura loves to throw off-balance, which affects both his velocity and his accuracy:
His underthrows, where he throws off-balance, across his body, and/or doesn’t set his feet, are frequently an issue:
I’ve mentioned his overconfidence and penchant for overconfident/ill-advised throws, but I need to really re-emphasize that de Laura absolutely loves to force throws that he shouldn’t. He upgraded his receiving targets this year, but too often he just throws it up and simply expects his receivers to come down with it.
He has a fantastic freshman receiver, Tetairoa McMillan, but sometimes it looks like he’s not even on the same page as his receiver. Here he throws it up to a receiver who’s not open, and who honestly doesn’t look like he even expects the ball coming his way:
De Laura absolutely loves this sort of 50/50 throw (which is obviously less than 50/50 if your receiver doesn’t see it coming), and very often throws questionable passes up to his receivers with the expectation that they’ll out-muscle the defensive back for the catch. As someone who was in Notre Dame’s stadium last week just praying that QB Drew Pyne would try to take a shot down the field so that the Cal secondary could capitalize, I hope de Laura has this same sort of overconfidence against the Cal secondary. Against Mississippi State, this misguided overconfidence resulted in 3 interceptions.
To conclude, it seems very unlikely that Cal will be able to sack Jayden de Laura, and he will throw some ill-advised passes with the expectation that his receivers will beat their defenders. Against Cal’s secondary, I am pretty sure that’s not a good idea. However, Jayden de Laura has shown an ability to create his own yards, so it’s important that Cal is able to at least corral him in the pocket, and Cal will almost certainly devote a defender as a QB spy.
What I really hope is that Arizona doesn’t just lean on their running backs for consistent chunks of yardage every play.
Arizona has a bevy of running backs, distributing carries fairly evenly amongst 3 different running backs (Michael Wiley, DJ Williams, and Jonah Coleman).
The established starter is Michael Wiley. The three primary running backs of Arizona are all heavy-hitter types. Of those three, Wiley is probably the most versatile.
Wiley is the team’s third most targeted receiver, because of his versatility in both the run- and the pass-game:
Wiley typically runs with a heavy-hitting style, but he also has speed and patience:
Next is the Florida State transfer, DJ Williams. Williams is 100% a power running back, but he does occasionally show some nimbleness:
Here he uses his speed to get to the edge for the touchdown:
Next is the freshman Jonah Coleman, who is already receiving a significant amount of touches this season. Coleman is typically trying to run through defenders:
But he also displays good balance after contact:
Lastly, Arizona is trying to get another highly-rated recruit involved in the run game, Rayshon Luke. Luke is undersized, but extremely speedy and shifty in open space. Check out his foot speed once he gets a full head of steam:
I expect Arizona to distribute the load amongst their four running backs Saturday. I don’t think anyone is a game-breaker, but they’re all sufficiently talented on the ground to punish Cal for their weak run defense.
Arizona’s top receiver this season is the transfer from UTEP, Jacob Cowing. Cowing’s most obvious attributes are his speed and route-running abilities. Cowing repeatedly burned San Diego State:
Cowing took advantage of his speed to consistently beat his defender to the edge:
Here Cowing again beats his defender on a simple out route:
You could probably summarize this as not a good day for the SDSU safety, as SDSU never adjusted to Cowing or his play. Cowing is a strong route runner:
And Arizona trusts his ability on yards after the catch:
Cowing typically uses his speed to make defenders miss in the open field:
True freshman Tetairoa McMillan is a contested catch expert. His high school tape is full of ridiculous one-handed catches. I only have three games of tape to pull form, so he hasn’t set the world on fire with highlights yet, but the potential is very clearly there. Here he is making one such contested catch:
And here he is running a very nice route to get inside leverage for the touchdown:
The best Arizona receiver (in my opinion) last year was Dorian Singer, who has now been relegated to the #3 target.
I was never a huge fan of starting tight end Alex Lines, but it seems like de Laura prefers the walk-on tight end Tanner McLachlan, who is the most targeted receiver after Cowing, McMillan, and Wiley:
My overall impression of Arizona is that their receivers are talented, but not so much so that I can picture them exploiting the Cal secondary.
Cal does not typically fare well against mobile quarterbacks, so the primary challenge in this game will be to contain QB Jayden de Laura, and prevent him from making too many plays on his feet (either via scrambles or QB scramble drills). Arizona has upgraded their wide receiver corps, but QB Jayden de Laura is likely still too overconfident in his receivers’ abilities, and hopefully he will probably regret testing the Cal secondary (particularly Craig Woodson, who will almost certainly pick off de Laura). I expect Arizona’s passing game to struggle against an elite Cal secondary, but the Notre Dame game showed that boring run plays can still be effective against Cal, and so Cal will need to show an ability to shut down the run game in order to force Arizona into risky offensive territory. If Cal can shut down the run, you can likely feel good about this game, but otherwise, it’s likely a coin flip.
You can find my full clips here.