The Arizona Wildcats did not achieve the sizable gains they were seeking on defense in the season opener. With so many newcomers playing significant roles, it’s going to take a little time.
The first step toward accomplishing that big goal is to master the little things — the techniques and fundamentals that make the difference between success and failure on any given play.
The UA defense has focused on two areas in particular leading up to Saturday’s game against Houston. For edge defenders at the line of scrimmage, it’s what’s referred to in football parlance as “keeping contain.” For pass defenders, it’s playing the ball.
Arizona “lost contain” too many times against Northern Arizona, according to UA coach Rich Rodriguez. The Lumberjacks rushed for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats’ 62-24 victory.
“I think ‘contain’ is probably Coach Rod’s favorite word,” freshman defensive end Kylan Wilborn said Wednesday. “You hear it all the time. It’s something we’ve gotta do at all times. It’s our main priority.”
Although defensive ends coach Brian Knorr wants his charges to fly upfield and “create havoc” for opposing quarterbacks, it’s understood that maintaining a disciplined approach is equally important. The idea behind “keeping contain” or “setting the edge” is to prevent ballcarriers from reaching the perimeter.
“Keep everything inside,” Wilborn said, “where everyone’s at.”
More congestion usually leads to fewer yards. It’s a basic concept, but one that’s not always easy to execute, especially for younger players.
“Young guys tend to not look at their keys,” Knorr said. “They’ve got an initial key that’s going to give them a run read, a pass read — what the indicator is.
“That’s where my eyes have gotta be. As a young guy, it would seem obvious that your eyes have to be right all the time. But they start thinking about a lot of other things.”
Wilborn ran the gamut in his college debut. He made one of the biggest plays of the game, a fumble-forcing sack in the first quarter. He had three additional quarterback pressures. He also lost contain on a handful of occasions.
Immediately after the sack, Knorr spoke to Wilborn on the sideline about some assignments he had missed earlier in the series.
“I was trying to do a little too much,” Wilborn said. “As soon as that play ended, it was straight to the whiteboard.”
The issue on the back end is more physical than mental — although there is a psychological component to it, too.
UA cornerbacks struggled to locate and play the ball against NAU, especially on deep passes. The Lumberjacks threw for 377 yards and drew two pass-interference flags.
“There were times we were in position and just didn’t have our head around to make a play on the ball,” said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who also coaches the cornerbacks. “We worked on that this week. We’ll get that fixed.”
Similar to the defensive ends setting the edge, defensive backs must pick up on specific visual cues just before the ball arrives. They look at receivers’ hands and eyes.
“When he looks for the ball,” Yates said, “we look for the ball.”
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. It didn’t always happen that way against NAU, leading to long completions or obvious penalties. (One of the easiest calls for officials to make is pass interference when a defensive back doesn’t turn and look for the ball.)
“They have to trust their ability,” Yates said. “I thought we played passive and didn’t trust our technique. We panicked sometimes.”
That was especially evident in the early stages of the game. It happened to Lorenzo Burns, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, and to Sammy Morrison, a redshirt sophomore who missed the 2016 season because of injuries.
Burns described his performance against NAU as “average.” He knows that won’t cut it against Houston.
“We’ve just been working on playing the ball better, recognizing routes better, being great with our hand placement, getting the ball out,” Burns said.
“When you see the ball in the air, don’t make a mistake like grabbing the receiver or getting yourself out of positon. We did do some of that last week. This week I think we’ll be a lot more collected.”
Rodriguez is opposed to an NCAA rule proposal that would allow players to transfer once without having to sit out a year.
Currently, student-athletes aren’t immediately eligible if transferring from one Division I program to another, with occasional exceptions for special circumstances. The proposal, which would require that transfers meet certain academic requirements, is in its infancy and part of a bigger bundle of possible transfer-related reforms.
“I’m sure there’ll be rules about tampering,” said Rodriguez, the acting president of the American Football Coaches Association. “But having an open (transfer policy) at this level, with as much time and money that’s committed to recruiting, to get a guy, to sign a guy — I’m talking about legally — and all of a sudden he can just transfer without sitting out? I think that’s a bad idea for Division I football.”
- Defensive lineman Dereck Boles played in the season opener against Northern Arizona despite having the flu. He didn’t tell the coaches he was sick because it was his first game at Arizona. Boles finished with three tackles.
- Rodriguez praised presumptive Houston quarterback starter Kyle Allen, who’s from Scottsdale. “I’ve known him for a long time,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a great thrower. He’s an athletic guy. He’s experienced. He’s played in SEC games (14 starts at Texas A&M). He’s a really, really good player. Everybody in the country wanted him.”
- Rodriguez said the main group of defensive linemen all played about the same number of snaps vs. NAU, a situation he described as “ideal.” Arizona is committed to playing more guys this year.
- Knorr, who’s also the special teams coach, said the placekicker job remains an open competition between veteran Josh Pollack and freshman Lucas Havrisik.
- Knorr complimented freshman Colin Schooler for stepping in for the injured Trevor Wood on the kickoff-return unit and helping spring Tyrell Johnson for a 58-yard return.
- Rodriguez said the coaches “weren’t sure” if freshman tailback Nathan Tilford would play in the opener. He did in the fourth quarter and ended up with 79 yards on four carries. Rodriguez feels good about the top five running backs on the depth chart.