It sounded harsh coming out of the head coach’s mouth, but the facts — alternative or otherwise — are irrefutable.
As Rich Rodriguez observed the other day, the Arizona Wildcats’ defense was “bad” last season. The UA ranked ninth or lower in the Pac-12 in every conceivable category that determines defensive proficiency.
The man in charge of fixing it, Marcel Yates, knows there’s nothing he can do about 2016. He used to be a defensive back, remember; they’re trained to have short memories.
So Yates looks ahead with optimism. He shares Rodriguez’s view that the defense wasn’t up to par — and that it has the potential to improve significantly.
For starters, Yates is more familiar with Arizona, and the Wildcats with him, in his second year on the job. Although the UA will be relying on newcomers, especially in its defensive front, the learning curve on both sides should be easier to negotiate in Year 2.
“Last spring, I didn’t know anything about this place,” said Yates, who arrived last January from Boise State. “So I was learning. Now I know where the weight room is, I know what Coach wants, I know what Coach expects. I’m kind of in a groove now to where we’re taking this thing to another level.”
Yates is more comfortable in Tucson and with his specific role; he is coaching cornerbacks and “Spur” safeties now after leading the linebackers last season. But what Yates is seeking from his players remains the same: sound technique, physical play and game-changing takeaways.
Last year’s defense wanted to do all those things, of course. Yates said the unit’s effort was exemplary. Arizona just didn’t have sufficient talent or depth because of injuries and missteps in recruiting.
“It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen, to have the record we had and for those guys to come out and work every week,” Yates said. “At one point, we were 2-9, and it felt like we were 9-2 the way they practiced. I’ve never seen that before.
“In this conference, you do need to have some Jimmys and some Joes. We feel that with our offseason, we’ve got some players that have gotten bigger, gotten stronger, gotten faster. Then with the new kids we have coming in, we feel like we’ll be a lot better.”
RichRod on Heeke
Rodriguez met with new Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke and his wife last week, but Rodriguez already was familiar with Heeke’s work.
While at Central Michigan, Heeke hired Butch Jones as the Chippewas’ head coach. Jones came from West Virginia, where he had been Rodriguez’s receivers coach for two seasons.
Heeke is “very well-respected,” Rodriguez said. “We’re happy that he’s going to be a Wildcat.”
Rodriguez is hopeful Heeke can make progress with facility upgrades, in particular an indoor practice bubble for football and other sports.
“I have a list of stuff,” Rodriguez said. “I kind of keep it handy. I had it for Greg (Byrne, Heeke’s predecessor) every time I saw Greg. I’ll have it for Dave as well.”
New coach on board
New receivers coach Theron Aych participated in his first practice Monday afternoon. Afterward, according to receiver Shun Brown, Aych gathered his players in the end zone.
“First downs turn into touchdowns,” he told them. “This is where we’re going to meet every day.”
Aych orchestrated a prolific offense at Angelo State before spending last season at UTEP. Rodriguez believes Aych will bring new ideas to the offense and help Arizona recruit in Texas, particularly in the Houston area.
Aych always has been an admirer of Rodriguez’s offense. When he was a graduate assistant at Houston about 15 years ago, Aych called Calvin Magee to learn about the zone read. Magee is now Arizona’s running backs coach and co-offensive coordinator.
“We play fast. That’s my style of play,” Aych said. “When I had the opportunity to come out here and join the staff, I just couldn’t pass up on it.”
‘Excited’ about My-King
Last week, Arizona signee My-King Johnson revealed to the Star that he is gay. When he joins the team in training camp, the defensive end will become the first openly gay player in FBS.
“I don’t think My-King or anybody in the program is looking to make a big deal out of it,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just excited to have him be part of our program.”
Rodriguez said he doesn’t care about players’ backgrounds or beliefs as long as they “do all the right things as far as what a student-athlete is supposed to do — the expectations of a student-athlete at the University of Arizona. And we fully expect him to be that.”
- Rodriguez said more players are “committed” to doing extra work in the weight room this year as opposed to simply being “compliant” with what’s required of them.
- Rodriguez expects senior Zach Benjamin to be part of the receiver rotation and still doesn’t understand why Benjamin wasn’t eligible last season after transferring from South Florida and walking on at Arizona. “I think he should have been eligible,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s silly that he wasn’t.”
- Arizona is scheduled for one more practice, on Wednesday, before the “Spring Showcase” on Thursday. The event begins at 6 p.m. at Arizona Stadium and is open to the public.