Rich Rodriguez has a saying for just about everything.
From “hard edge” and “spot the ball” to “pull the rope,” the veteran coach coins terms that will bring his team together and separate them from the rest of the pack.
Rodriguez’s latest one is a throwback from his time at West Virginia.
Now that they have more depth and flexibility on defense, the Wildcats have broken out the “SWAT Team” this year on third down.
They need the extra help. Arizona ranked 89th in the nation in third-down efficiency last season, letting teams convert 43.7 percent of the time. Charged with improving a dreadful defense, Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel dipped into their West Virginia roots. The Wildcats’ “SWAT Team” includes a mix of linebackers and defensive backs in a “dime” scheme.
The new-look defense worked in last week’s opener against Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks converted on just 4 of 19 third downs.
“We need guys that can rush the passer and guys on the back end that can cover,” Rodriguez said of what he looks for in “SWAT Team” personnel. “We do different coverages with it, but guys that know how to play the ball in the air is a big thing with that. We’re still trying to find that. I don’t think we’re settled on who the exact 11 are, but this recruiting class and the next recruiting class will help us define what we call the ‘SWAT Team’ even better.”
For now, the personnel consists of Kirifi Taula, Derrick Turituri and Sir Thomas Jackson up front. Linebacker Jake Fischer in the middle and then a host of defensive backs in Jonathan McKnight, Shaquille Richardson, Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Jared Tevis, Jourdon Grandon, Will Parks and Devin Holiday.
Right now, Taula, Turituri, Jackson, Parks and Holiday are third-down specific players.
“I can describe what the coaches are looking for in one word: motor,” Turituri said. “It’s running to the ball even if it’s across the field. They’re looking for players with a motor that’s always going.”
The UA is able to use the package this year because it has more options on defense. Last year, players that were on the field for the first two downs were forced to stay there; as a result, the Wildcats were often gassed by third down.
“When they first told us about ‘SWAT,’ we all got excited,” said linebacker Marquis Flowers, one of the players to come off the field for third down. “I like it. What made us play a lot of plays last year what that we couldn’t get off the field on third down. This year, that’s more of a focal point.”
Here’s a closer look, by quarter, at how the “SWAT Team” fared against NAU.
By the numbers: The UA stopped NAU on two of its three third-down attempts.
The big play: NAU’s first third-down attempt was a success. Quarterback Kyren Poe found tight end R.J. Rickert for 25 yards on third-and-four.
What happened next: The Lumberjacks were unsuccessful on their next two attempts. Two “SWAT Team” specialists, Jackson and Holiday, came up with tackles.
By the numbers: NAU converted just one of its four tries.
The big play: Taula came up with a sack of Poe on third-and- eight, but was hit with a personal foul penalty and the Lumberjacks were rewarded with a first down.
What happened next: Later that drive, the UA stopped NAU on a third-and-eight when Poe was forced to run and was stopped by Tevis and Taula. The Lumberjacks punted on the next play.
By the numbers: The Wildcats stopped NAU on all five of its third-down tries.
The big play: There were a couple. Two of the UA’s three interceptions in the game came on third-down stops in the third. Holiday picked off Poe on a third-and-10 and Bondurant got Poe on a third-and-15 later in the quarter.
What happened next: Bondurant’s pick — his second of the game — was the UA’s final defensive play of the quarter and ended any chance NAU had of a comeback.
By the numbers: NAU was just two of seven in the final quarter.
The big play: On NAU’s final third down of the game, Poe’s pass for Alex Tolliver on third-and-three fell incomplete.
What happened next: Poe’s pass on fourth down was also incomplete. The UA then ran the clock out to finish the game.