UA FOOTBALL

Arizona football: Time to get defensive

Cats vow besieged unit can be fixed with more turnovers, sacks, depth
2013-08-06T00:00:00Z Arizona football: Time to get defensiveDaniel Berk Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Sometimes numbers tell the whole story, sometimes they don't.

When it comes to last season's Arizona Wildcats defense, the numbers do a pretty good job.

The UA ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 35.3 points per game. The Wildcats were last in total defense, giving up 499 yards per game. Rushing defense and passing defense were more of the same. Coordinator Jeff Casteel's unit was 11th in rushing defense (206.2 yards per game) and 12th in passing defense (292.8 yards per game).

The figures illustrate the Wildcats clearly had a tough time stopping their opponent.

So the natural question this fall camp is this: Will the defense be better this season?

Coach Rich Rodriguez, his assistants and players all swear the answer will be yes.

"We're a little more active, a little more athletic and we're going to be a little deeper," Rodriguez said. "You have to fix what's broken. We just had too many guys play too many plays.

"This year, if we can stay healthy, we'll be able to play more people."

Granted camp is only three days old and the UA practiced in shoulder pads Monday at Arizona Stadium for the first time this fall, but the defense seems to be ahead of the offense. Rodriguez isn't quite sure what that means yet.

"That could be due more to bad offensive execution," Rodriguez said. "But, I do think, when they get more confident, which is the natural progression, they'll make more plays and should get more confidence."

Here are three areas the Wildcats would like to see improvement this season on the defensive side.

Turnovers

Arizona's 12 interceptions last season ranked 10th in the league; only Colorado and Utah were worse.

The good news for the Wildcats is that players involved in all 12 interceptions are back this season. Linebacker Marquis Flowers and cornerback Jonathan McKnight each had three picks. Safeties Jared Tevis and Tra'Mayne Bondurant each had two, and Shaquille Richardson and Jourdon Grandon picked off one pass apiece.

All six of those players are expected to be starters this season and bring some playmaking ability to the defense. They all are also more accustomed to Casteel's system, meaning they should be around the ball more.

"One thing we stress a lot everyday is trying to create turnovers," UA safeties coach Matt Caponi said. "It's hard when we're not tackling in practice, but we're preaching just putting yourself in position to be successful in the pass game and trying to get some interceptions. Tra'Mayne has shown to be a playmaker and has a knack for getting some interceptions and same with Jared Tevis."

Added Tevis: "We've gotten a few turnovers early, which is what we're trying to do right now."

Pressuring the QB

Arizona's 16 sacks last season were the worst in the league.

Every other team besides Colorado had more than 25. Rodriguez and Casteel are hopeful the team is able to get more pressure off the edge this season from its defensive ends.

One player who could provide help is redshirt freshman Kyle Kelley.

The Irvine, Calif., product has the size (6 feet 3 inches, 250 pounds) and speed that Rodriguez and Casteel like on their line.

Combine Kelley with returners Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato, who is still recovering from a knee injury, and the UA should be able to generate more pressure this season.

"Coach Casteel and them have a plan schematically to get more pressure," Rodriguez said after Monday's practice. "Also some of it is going to come from some new guys as well. I'm looking forward to seeing that. Wednesday will be the first day in pads and we'll see more then.

"It's important to do everything better defensively. There isn't one thing we did well."

Using more players

After a recent practice, Rodriguez said his linebackers last season were as thin of a group as he can remember having at any position.

The linebackers weren't the only defensive group that suffered from a lack of depth.

The UA seems to be deeper this season and has a few true freshmen who could see time right away to boost the depth even more.

Despite the losses of Vince Miles and Patrick Onwuasor at safety, Caponi thinks his group has a lot of talent and should take pressure off the linebackers and defensive line ahead of them.

The coach pointed out he's already happy with the improvement of sophomores Will Parks, Anthony Lopez and Wayne Capers Jr., along with redshirt freshman Yamen Sanders.

"I think we might be the deepest position on defense as far as the guys who we have coming back from last year and got reps in during the spring," Caponi said.

Extra points

• Quarterback Jesse Scroggins practiced for the first time this fall after suffering a concussion in the weight room. Scroggins wore a red jersey, signaling for defenders not to hit him, but was a full participant in practice.

"Jesse did alright; he's still learning what's going on," Rodriguez said. "He's got the physical talent. I think his footwork was rushed a little bit because he's excited to be out there."

Rodriguez hasn't made any of the quarterbacks available to the media yet this camp.

• Defensive linemen Tevin Hood and Justin Washington were both limited participants in Monday's practice. Both wore green jerseys - a sign they weren't cleared for full practice. Rodriguez said the team is monitoring Hood, who is dealing with some tendonitis in his knee. The coach said Washington is "hobbled a little bit."

Training Camp: Day 3

At Arizona Stadium

• Temperature at start: 89 degrees and partly sunny at 6:15 p.m.

• Newcomer watch: Listed on his high school roster as Nate Phillips, receiver James Nathan Phillips is going by his first name as a member of the UA. The former three-star recruit is getting a lot of action early in camp, with the receiver group depleted by injury and departures. Phillips has seen most of his action in the slot, and coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday that Phillips will likely play as a true freshman and has impressed him early in camp.

• The big number: 1: The Wildcats practiced on their new field turf at Arizona Stadium for the first time Monday night. The practice was cut short by rain and lightning.

Key dates

• Saturday: Fort Huachuca scrimmage

• Aug. 17: Scrimmage on campus

• Aug. 23: Scrimmage on campus

• Aug. 30 (Friday): Season opener at Arizona Stadium vs. NAU, 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Arizona

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Pac-12 South football standings

  Conference Overall
Team W L T PCT W L T PCT
UCLA 6 2 0 0.750 9 2 0 0.818
ASU 6 2 0 0.750 9 2 0 0.818
Arizona 6 2 0 0.750 9 2 0 0.818
USC 6 3 0 0.667 7 4 0 0.636
Utah 4 4 0 0.500 7 4 0 0.636
Colorado 0 8 0 0.000 2 9 0 0.182

Pac-12 North football standings

  Conference Overall
Team W L T PCT W L T PCT
Oregon 7 1 0 0.875 10 1 0 0.909
Stanford 4 4 0 0.500 6 5 0 0.545
Cal 3 6 0 0.333 5 6 0 0.455
Oregon State 2 5 0 0.286 5 5 0 0.500
Washington 2 5 0 0.286 6 5 0 0.545
Washington State 2 6 0 0.250 3 8 0 0.273
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