Thursday, July 25, 2024

Arizona QB Noah Fifita, an expert in efficiency, is poised for star turn as Wildcats move to Big 12 in 2024

Summertime in the world of college football is a time for coaching and recruiting staffs to get away during the dead period after a busy month of June that was filled with official visits, football camps, and fall camp preparation. With recruiting being year-round between high school players, transfer portal players, and now your own players due to NIL and transfer rules, it’s important for a staff to get away and rest before the sprint towards the expanded College Football Playoff begins in fall camp. However, before everyone heads out of the office in July, teams complete several offseason scouting studies.

First, teams conduct self-scouting reports from the previous season to see where they had success and identify areas in need of improvement. Then it’s on to advance scouting reports to see how they match up with their upcoming opponents and to see how their playing style might differ next season depending on any coaching changes that may have been made. Finally, the staff will study trends around the country and analyze what successful teams did well and how they won in the previous season.

Having worked in personnel and recruiting at Stanford and the University of Minnesota, as well as spending four years in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, I’ve experienced what it’s like to do big offseason studies for coaches and scouts. Instead of doing that for a specific staff this offseason, I thought I’d do that for you. While some teams and coaches value stats and analytics more than others, there’s a couple of things that most coaches will agree on. The quarterback position is one of the most important positions in all of sports and the success or failure of your team is often determined by the efficiency of your offense. So that’s where this offseason study begins.

There are tons of stats and different categories to look at in analyzing your own quarterback, opponent’s QBs, or the top QBs around the country, but many of the best coaches and evaluators that I’ve been around value these categories more than most.

1. Third down

2. Red zone

3. Passing under pressure

These three passing categories not only translate to winning games at the collegiate level, but can help determine how a QB’s skills will translate to the NFL. A quarterback that struggles in these categories will have a tough time finding success at the pro level where the game is sped up, defenses are more complex, and throwing windows are tighter and close much faster.

The best QBs in the country thrive in these categories and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a successful team that doesn’t have a QB that can operate efficiently and at a high level in these situations. When I started looking at these three categories for the 2023 season, I wondered what I’d find. Once I saw the numbers the question quickly changed from what I’d find to who I found and there was one QB that stood out from the rest. As expected, the names of Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick Jayden Daniels and Round 1 NFL Draft picks such as Caleb Williams (first overall), Drake Maye (third overall), J.J. McCarthy (10th overall), and Bo Nix (12th overall) were littered all over the top 10, 15, or 20 most efficient QBs in each category. But, that’s not the name that jumped off the screen when looking at the stats in each situation.

The guy that repeatedly appeared in the top 10 of efficiency in each category was Arizona’s Noah Fifita. The Heisman winner is supposed to be at the top of all of these categories, but a redshirt freshman who started the season as a backup is not. Fifita watched Jayden de Laura start the first four games of 2023 from the sidelines, but he finished the season as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. In fact, the Heisman-winning Daniels was the only QB to finish ahead of Fifita’s efficiency in more than one of the three categories.

The three-star QB out of Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., was the 40th ranked QB in the class of 2022 after breaking school records for career completions (499), pass yards (7,273), and pass TD (83), but had yet to get a meaningful opportunity at Arizona. That all changed when de Laura injured his leg and Fifita took over Arizona’s Pac-12 opener with the Wildcats trailing 17-14 at Stanford entering the fourth quarter. Fifita didn’t flinch as he came off the bench and engineered two crucial drives. First, a nine-play 67-yard go-ahead TD drive and then a perfectly executed 4-minute offense drive to put the game on ice. He went 4-of-4 for 47 yards to help earn Arizona’s first road win at Stanford since 2006 and their first 1-0 start in Pac-12 play since 2019.

Despite suffering losses in each of his first two starts vs No. 7 Washington (31-24) and at No. 9 USC (43-41 in double OT), Fifita immediately looked like he belonged as he matched Caleb Williams and Michael Penix Jr. throw for throw. He never looked back while leading the Wildcats to a seven-game win streak to end the season, tying a program-best. Among those seven consecutive wins was a program record five-game win streak vs AP-ranked opponents to ensure Arizona’s first winning season since 2017. The Wildcats won a total of 10 games in the previous four seasons combined (10-31 from 2019-22) before Fifita led them to a 10-3 record in 2023. He capped off Arizona’s fourth double-digit win season in program history and first since 2014 in style with a 354-yard, two-touchdown pass performance in a 38-24 Alamo Bowl win over No. 12 Oklahoma.

In a span of three months, Fifita went from three-star backup to Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year and one of the most efficient QBs in the nation. Here’s how he ranked among FBS quarterbacks in each of the three categories.

Noah Fifita’s third down success

Fifita led the nation in third down completion percentage at 73% and was fifth in pass efficiency (170.1), trailing the likes of Jalen Milroe at Alabama and Daniels. He finished ahead of 2024 first-round picks J.J. McCarthy (6th), Bo Nix (7th), Caleb Williams (11th), Drake Maye (19th), and Michael Penix Jr. (50th).

FBS third down passing efficiency (2023)

Comp Att Comp Pct Pass Yds TD INT Pass Efficiency
Jalen Milroe Alabama 43 69 62% 800 7 2 187.4
Jayden Daniels LSU 40 56 71% 478 6 0 178.5
John Rhys Plumlee UCF 36 61 59% 588 7 0 177.9
Kaidon Salter Liberty 31 61 51% 665 6 0 174.9
Noah Fifita Arizona 70 96 73% 859 7 1 170.1

Noah Fifita’s red zone success

Fifita had the third-best passing efficiency in the red zone in 2023, trailing only ArkansasKJ Jefferson (Transferred to UCF for 2024) and Seth Henigan of Memphis. He had the sixth-best completion percentage at 73%.

FBS red zone pass efficiency (2023)

Comp Att Comp Pct Pass Yds TD INT Pass Efficiency
KJ Jefferson Arkansas 23 34 68% 178 14 0 247.5
Seth Henigan Memphis 41 53 77% 298 20 1 245.3
Noah Fifita Arizona 29 40 73% 178 16 1 236.9
Sam Hartman Notre Dame 22 32 69% 188 12 1 235.6
Jayden Daniels LSU 29 46 63% 242 17 0 229.2

Noah Fifita passing under pressure

Fifita’s least efficient passing category of the three was when he faced pressure, and even then he finished ranked seventh in the nation. The top three most efficient QBs when under pressure just happened to include two Heisman finalists, a Heisman winner, and three of the top 12 players selected in the 2024 NFL Draft.

FBS passing under pressure (2023)

Comp Att Comp Pct Pass Yds TD INT Pass Efficiency
Bo Nix Oregon 43 64 67% 619 9 1 191.7
Jayden Daniels LSU 25 50 50% 557 5 0 176.6
J.J. McCarthy Michigan 52 82 63% 780 8 3 168.2
Graham Mertz Florida 52 84 62% 767 5 1 155.9
Jason Bean Kansas 17 43 40% 443 6 4 153.5
Dillon Gabriel Oklahoma 44 78 56% 800 3 3 147.6
Noah Fifita Arizona 44 79 56% 628 7 2 146.6

When I dug deeper into the numbers, I found that not only was he one of the most efficient passers in those three categories, but Fifita was lights out in several others as well. He completed 77% of his passes when he had a clean pocket (fourth in FBS). So one would figure that the best strategy when facing him would be to blitz him, pressure him, and make him have to get out of the pocket.

Nope. Wrong.

Fifita was the third most efficient passer vs. the blitz (215.7), led all FBS QBs in completion percentage when facing a blitz (77%), was seventh in completion percentage when under pressure (56%), was sixth in pass efficiency when throwing from outside the pocket (172.7), and fourth in pass yards per attempt when outside the pocket (10.7).

FBS passing vs. blitz (2023)

Comp Att Comp Pct Pass Yds TD INT Pass Efficiency
Kaidon Salter Liberty 58 92 63% 1,142 19 2 231.1
Jayden Daniels LSU 69 96 72% 1,005 17 0 218.3
Noah Fifita Arizona 74 96 77% 1,082 14 2 215.7
Bo Nix Oregon 58 86 67% 732 18 0 208.0
Jordan McCloud James Madison 70 102 69% 1,057 15 3 198.3

How about playing man coverage?

Fifita was the most efficient passer in the nation vs. man coverage (200.9) and led all FBS QBs in completion percentage vs. man (75%). Fifita had all the answers to the tests that defenses gave him in his first season under center at Arizona. It seemed like he was in the top five of FBS QBs in almost every category.

In summary: Noah Fifita FBS passing ranks (2023)

Stat Percent FBS Rank
3rd Down Comp Pct 73% 1st
Comp Pct vs Blitz 77% 1st
Comp Pct vs Man Coverage 75% 1st
Pass Efficiency vs Man 200.9 1st
Pass Efficiency vs Blitz 215.7 3rd
Red Zone Pass Efficiency 236.9 3rd
Comp Pct Inside Pocket 74% 3rd
Comp Pct With Clean Pocket 77% 4th
Pass YPA vs Blitz 11.3 4th
Pass YPA Outside Pocket 10.7 4th
Comp Pct 72.4% 5th
3rd Down Pass Efficiency 170.1 5th

Heading into his first full season as a starter, Fifita will play in a new conference as Arizona moves to the Big 12, which begins media days July 9 in Las Vegas (Arizona, which was picked to finish fifth in preseason projections, meets the media July 10 and brings a contingent that includes Fifita). 

In addition to new conference digs, Fifita has a new head coach in Brent Brennan, who arrives after seven successful years at San Jose State, and he’ll have a new offensive coordinator/QB coach in former Syracuse head coach Dino Babers. Both Coach Brennan and Babers undoubtedly studied Fifita’s film and numbers when they arrived in Tucson this offseason. They’ll know that he averaged 311.9 pass yards per game in his nine starts (sixth in FBS), that he broke Arizona’s single-season record for completion percentage (72.4%), that he threw 15 touchdown passes to his left (only Heisman finalists Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. had more), that all six of his interceptions were on short throws zero-to-nine yards downfield, and they’ll know that he averaged 4.9 completions per game on balls thrown 20-plus yards downfield in his nine starts (third best behind Jayden Daniels and Michael Penix Jr.). They’ll know all of this and they will have tailored their offense to what made Fifita so efficient and successful in 2023 to try and make a jump to be even better in 2024.

Three days after Brennan’s introductory press conference, another massive announcement for Arizona football happened when Fifita and his No. 1 target and high school teammate at Servite, wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, took the floor during a timeout at the UCLA-Arizona men’s basketball game and announced that the dynamic duo was staying together in Tucson for the 2024 season. And with that, the hype train for Arizona football was back on track.

McMillan returns after a 2023 season that saw him record 90 receptions (tied for ninth in FBS) for 1,406 yards (fifth in FBS) and 10 receiving touchdowns. Only Washington wide receiver and future No. 9 overall pick of the 2024 NFL Draft of the Chicago Bears, Rome Odunze, had more receptions and yards than McMillan in the final season of the Pac-12 Conference. He could be a top-10 pick in the 2025 NFL Draft. 

Fifita will also have the comfort of playing behind an offensive line that remains intact and returns a combined 49 games started last season.

Other than having a talented and experienced offensive line, the next best thing a QB can have is a strong rushing attack at their disposal. Arizona lost its leading rusher, Jonah Coleman (871 yards and five TD in 2023), in the transfer portal to Washington, but may have improved its rush offense with the transfer portal additions of the three quality RBs in Jacory Croskey-Merritt (1,090 rush yds and 17 touchdowns in 2023 at New Mexico), Quali Conley (871 rush yds and nine TD in 2023 at San Jose State), and the four-star and No. 9-ranked transfer portal running back per 247Sports, Kedrick Reescano from Ole Miss. Having these quality backs can only help Fifita, who already completed 70% of his passes when using play action in 2023 (20th in FBS).

Fifita will have to build a similar trust and chemistry he has with McMillan with a new crop of receivers though, as the Wildcats return just two of their top seven pass catchers from last season. Senior WR Montana Lemonious-Craig is the only other returning player on the roster that had more than 10 receptions last season. He’ll have the chance to start building that chemistry when New Mexico comes to Arizona Stadium to kick off the 2024 season in less than two months on August 31.

With all of the stats we can study, there’s no way to measure or put a value on experience. Having it is huge because it slows the game down for a QB, gives them something to draw upon in different situations they’ll face, and gives the team faith that their QB can get the job done because they’ve seen it before. Experience can be a catalyst to spark improvement from year to year, and now Fifita has it. And while past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, Fifita’s passing efficiency compared to the best quarterbacks in the country last season indicates that he could make a jump in year two and do something special in Tucson in 2024. 

As defensive staffs around the Big 12 found out in their studies this offseason, Fifita and Arizona’s offense have all the tools to be successful and are poised to be even more efficient in hopes of announcing their presence in their new conference with authority.

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