UA's Jared Baker runs against South Carolina State early last season. He ended the season with 85 yards on 20 carries.


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - Rich Rodriguez spent Tuesday doing television interviews inside an amphitheater on a movie lot.

To his credit, the Arizona Wildcats' first-year head coach didn't flub a single line.

Yes, Rodriguez said Tuesday at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Studios, he's excited about the UA's chances in 2012. There's no reason, he repeated, why his team can't win games right away.

But behind Rodriguez's media day optimism is some genuine concern, particularly on defense.

The Wildcats will open training camp Aug. 2 with just five scholarship linebackers, three of whom must start. Adam Hall, one of the team's projected starters at safety, will likely miss the entire season as he recovers from knee surgery. His replacement, Jared Tevis, is a former walk-on.

Arizona's remaining defensive players are small - nobody's taller than 6 feet 4 inches or weighs more than 282 pounds - and still probably too slow to run the 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense with any authority.

"We make up for our lack of size," Rodriguez said, "with our lack of speed."

And it's not like Arizona is starting from a position of strength.

The Wildcats' 2011 defense was the worst in program history. The unit surrendered 460.5 yards and 35.4 points per game on the way to a 4-8 finish. Opponents threw for an average of 299 yards per game, making Arizona the second-worse pass defense in the nation (behind Memphis).

The Wildcats' 10 sacks were the program's fewest since the start of the Pac-10 era in 1978. They forced just 16 turnovers, fewest in the conference and 116th in the nation.

Arizona's opponents averaged 6.6 yards per play and punted just 45 times, both program worsts.

Gone are the 2011 team's three leading tacklers (Derek Earls, Paul Vassallo and Robert Golden) and the team's leader in passes broken up (Trevin Wade). Akron transfer Brian Wagner was supposed to fill in at middle linebacker, but he left the team last month for personal reasons. Ditto for David Lopez, a down-the-depth-chart players who was in line for more playing time.

Things got so bad that coaches considered moving running back Greg Nwoko to linebacker before thinking better of it.

"If he was an underclassman, we might've," Rodriguez said.

Still, the Wildcats have reason for some optimism with their first practice a week away. Linebacker Jake Fischer and defensive tackle Willie Mobley are both fully recovered after missing the 2011 season with knee surgeries. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight (knee) is expected to be ready for the team's Sept. 1 opener against Toledo.

Tra'Mayne Bondurant, the defense's best player during the second half of the 2011 season, should benefit from a move to safety. The 3-3-5 scheme also could mean big things for Marquis Flowers, a big hitter in the defensive backfield.

"I think everybody just has to know what they're doing, to tell you the truth. Everything else will speak for itself," Fischer said. "If we have guys who play as fast as they can and as hard as they can, we'll be just fine."

There's one major reason to be optimistic: Things can't be much worse than last season.

"Y'know, I really don't know what we have yet," Rodriguez said. "I liked the team by the end of spring, where we're at, but I was a lot nervous about certain positions and certain areas. A hungry team gives you a chance, and I think we have a hungry team."

On StarNet: Keep up with the Wildcats on Ryan Finley's blog at: