The Arizona Wildcats will run a true pro-style offense under Jedd Fisch. It requires the quarterback to operate from under center much of the time.
It won’t work if opposing rushers are in the QB’s face before he can hand the ball off or execute a play-action fake.
Blocking breakdowns happened far too often in 2020, when Arizona allowed the most sacks in the Pac-12 and saw its rushing average drop by more than half a yard per attempt. The offensive line’s regression – despite returning most of its starters – was one of the stranger developments in a bizarre season.
Unlike other positions the new coaching staff deemed deficient, the UA didn’t overhaul its personnel up front. The Wildcats enter training camp Friday with mostly the same group.
Jedd Fisch is banking on one key newcomer to extract higher-quality play out of a position that has more than enough quantity.
That would be Brennan Carroll, whose official title is offensive coordinator/offensive line coach. In reality, Fisch will run the offense, with Carroll and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty serving as his top aides. Carroll’s most important duty is getting the line in order. One could argue no assistant faces more pressure because of how crucial that objective is.
The key elements of that quest will be the focal point of our latest positional preview.
Position rank: Seventh (out of eight)
Biggest camp question: How can Carroll turn around the offensive line with largely the same cast of characters?
The process began early in the offseason with team-building exercises, including the offensive line “Olympics.” Carroll understands that cohesion matters more for this position than any other.
Arizona oddly never found it last season despite essentially returning four of its five starters. That is again the case this season — an unusual run of continuity amid a period of upheaval — and that should make cementing the top eight a bit easier.
For the most part, Arizona rotated six players through the first unit during spring practice. The primary starters, from left to right, were Jordan Morgan, Donovan Laie, Josh McCauley, Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears. Josh Baker, a second-year guard-center, typically was the first player off the bench. Edgar Burrola, seeking to revitalize his career after being suspended last season, is the leading candidate to be the third tackle, if not more.
Shuffling of positions was kept to a minimum. Sometimes Baker slotted in at center, giving McCauley — who exclusively has played center the past three seasons — reps at guard. Laie spent some time at left tackle, where he started for most of 2019 and the last two games of last season.
Every spot is critical, and contingency plans are essential. But perhaps no lineman is more pivotal to the unit’s — and Carroll’s — success than McCauley.
A sixth-year veteran who has been named to the watchlist for the Rimington Trophy, McCauley missed almost all of training camp last year because of a knee injury. He said he wouldn’t have been able to play in Arizona’s opener at Utah had it not been canceled because of COVID. He returned the following week against USC and played the rest of the way. But it’s reasonable to assume McCauley never was quite right physically, and who knows how that might have affected him mentally. Missed assignments and botched blitz pickups across the line were all too frequent in 2020.
Although he never has been a full-time offensive line coach, Carroll is expected to be an upgrade over predecessor Kyle DeVan. Or, put another way: Carroll better be.
Carroll has learned from some of the greats, most recently Mike Solari, whom Carroll assisted with the Seattle Seahawks. Carroll praised Solari’s attention to detail and encyclopedic knowledge of blocking schemes and defensive fronts. Carroll needs to pass that wisdom along, and it needs to stick.
Arizona needs a smarter, better offensive line. The improvement needs to come from within unless a youngster takes a leap or a wild card emerges. Davis DiVall, a 2021 signee whose arrival from Baylor was delayed because of academic issues, is one such candidate.
For much of spring practice, the defensive front got the better of the offensive line. But the unit improved over the course of spring ball. That’s all Carroll could ask for.
“From Day 1 to whatever day it is right now, they’ve done a really good job of handling new installs, new things we’ve thrown at them,” he said about two-thirds of the way through spring. “We haven’t made it easy on them. They’ve worked with it. We’re still maturing and still developing. But from where we started to where we are right now, it’s a big difference.”