Arizona nose tackle Tevin Hood (98) was a starter even though he was a walk-on. He finished the season with 13 tackles.


Rich Rodriguez couldn't help it.

At least once during every game, the Arizona Wildcats' first-year coach would look onto the field, and at his defense, and count off.

Walk-on. Walk-on. Freshman. Walk-on. Freshman. Walk-on.

"In our bowl game, we had four walk-ons and two true freshmen starting," Rodriguez said this week. "Truth is, those guys aren't supposed to be playing at this level, that soon. But we've got to have 11" on the field.

The UA was dreadful defensively in 2012, allowing a program-worst 499 yards per game. Arizona's opponents scored 60 touchdowns and 459 points, two more stats in the worst-ever category. (The UA's 2003 squad held the previous distinction; coach John Mackovic was fired midseason.)

Arizona went 8-5 and won a bowl game anyway, a testament to Rodriguez's offense and the talent left behind - or developed - on that side of the ball. Rodriguez inherited a quarterback, Matt Scott, who fit his system perfectly. Ka'Deem Carey blossomed at running back and currently leads the nation in rushing yards and yards per game.

The Wildcats had no such luck on defense.

Jake Fischer racked up a team-high 119 tackles in his first year back following knee surgery. Marquis Flowers, a safety-turned-linebacker, finished second with 100 tackles and first with 13 tackles-for-loss. Jared Tevis, a Canyon del Oro High School product and a former walk-on, was stellar before being slowed by an ankle injury.

The rest of the defense, however, was a mishmash of hobbled returners and wide-eyed newbies to the Wildcats' 3-3-5 "odd stack" scheme.

Linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson, nose tackle Tevin Hood and safety Vince Miles all started, even though they were walk-ons who hadn't played a meaningful college snap before September. Tevis, a former walk-on who received a scholarship last spring, was a mainstay when healthy. True freshman Wayne Capers Jr. played the last two games of the season at "Bandit" after Tra'Mayne Bondurant, arguably the team's best playmaker, got hurt.

Rodriguez said the underclassmen "hung in there," even though the numbers were dreadful.

"For true freshmen to play at certain positions like linebacker and safety, that's unheard of," he said.

Luckily for the Wildcats, reinforcements are on the way. Defensive end Kyle Kelley redshirted this fall but should be a contributor in 2013, and junior college transfer Brandon Golson figures to play at linebacker. Derek Babiash, an incoming freshman from Poway, Calif., projects as the UA's cornerback of the future.

The Wildcats of the present, meanwhile, should benefit from another offseason in the weight room.

"We're way too small - just … small," Rodriguez said. "A big part of it is size and strength and just holding up."

Arizona should only get better defensively, in part because it can't get much worse.

"We knew coming in that we were going to be struggling," he said. "Anybody who was around the program knew there were going to be guys who were playing before they were ready."

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2012 in review

Today's story is the second in a three-day review of the 2012 season.

• Friday: Special teams

• Today: Defense

• Sunday: Offense