When the Arizona Wildcats were at their finest in 2013, it was often because of their under-the-radar defense.
Sure, the UA’s offense scored 42 points in an upset over Oregon, but the defense is the group that forced three turnovers and made all-world quarterback Marcus Mariota look average.
In Arizona’s 42-19 win over Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, the UA defense held Doak Walker winner Andre Williams to just 2.9 yards per carry and intercepted quarterback Chase Rettig twice.
And when the Wildcats struggled last season, it was often because the defense let them down. Whether it was giving up 50-plus points to Arizona State or not being able to get off the field against USC, Arizona’s successes and failures in 2013 could often be tied to the defense.
So where does that leave the UA for 2014?
Coach Rich Rodriguez has often talked about the need to develop more depth and get bigger and more talented on the defensive side as he builds his program.
“We’re getting there,” Rodriguez said. “I really believe we have developed more guys on that side of the ball that we can win with and we feel comfortable with.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at the UA’s defense following spring drills:
In the mix: Luca Bruno, Jerod Cody, Reggie Gilbert, Dwight Melvin, Dan Pettinato, Kirifi Taula, Jeff Worthy and Parker Zellers
On the outside: Calvin Allen and Jack Banda
What we learned this spring: Gilbert and Pettinato will get most of the work at the two defensive end spots. The two seniors-to-be had solid springs and are both comfortable in defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s scheme. Pettinato missed some time last season after tearing his ACL before the year but is fully healthy now.
The nose tackle spot is a bit more confusing than the ends. Dwight Melvin, Jeff Worthy and Parker Zellers should all see time there this season. Who gets the bulk of the snaps remains a huge mystery. Melvin worked with the first group during the spring game, but that likely doesn’t mean much.
The road ahead: The Wildcats are hopeful they will get Aiulua Fanene and Sani Fuimaono back this summer after the two complete missions that have lasted two years. Four-star defensive tackle Marcus Griffin will arrive this summer, but Rodriguez said during the spring that it’s tough for a defensive tackle to come in and play right away as a true freshman. The UA is also hoping to land LSU transfer Jordan Allen. Allen, who will be eligible to play right away, visited Arizona last week and is expected to make a decision soon. He’s down to UA and TCU.
In the mix: Hank Hobson, Jake Matthews, DeAndre Miller, Derrick Turituri and Scooby Wright
On the outside: Haden Gregory, Cody Ippolito, Sir Thomas Jackson, Alex King, R.J. Morgan and Antonio Smothers
What we learned this spring: Scooby Wright will be the anchor and leader of this group. Wright spent most of the spring playing middle linebacker and even took Jake Fischer’s No. 33 for the move. Even though he has played only one season, Wright is the UA’s most experienced linebacker and can play all three spots for Casteel. Miller and Matthews both raised their stock this spring and should see plenty of playing time during the season. Smothers, a transfer from Scottsdale Community College, isn’t quite in the mix yet.
The road ahead: Both incoming freshmen linebackers, Jamardre Cobb and Marquis Ware, should play right away. Both are four-star prospects from Salesian High School in Los Angeles and will be instant upgrades for the UA.
In the mix: Patrick Glover, Devin Holiday, Jarvis McCall and Jonathan Mc-Knight
On the outside: Logan Bartlett, Arlandis Hinton and Brendan Murphy
What we learned this spring: That Arizona is thin, thin, thin at this position. The Wildcats have only one player with extended game experience in Jonathan McKnight. Holiday looks like the early leader to be the starter opposite McKnight after picking up seven tackles and an interception as a true freshman last season. After that, things are pretty murky. Derek Babiash, who was expected to provide some quality depth, left the program last week. That will now fall to Glover, a junior college transfer, and McCall.
The road ahead: Arizona has three cornerbacks coming in this summer: Rodney Carr, Kwesi Mashack and Jace Whittaker. They should all get a chance to play as true freshmen. The UA will also get creative with incoming wide receiver Cameron Denson, who will see some time at corner on third downs.
In the mix: Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Jourdon Grandon, Tellas Jones, Will Parks and Jared Tevis
On the outside: Jamar Allah, Blake Brady, Tyler Grammar, Carter Hehr, Brogan Kemmerly, Anthony Lopez, David Price, Yamen Sanders and Zach Streuling
What we learned this spring: Defensively, this is Arizona’s deepest position group. All three starters — Bondurant, Grandon and Tevis — are healthy and had productive springs, as did Parks, whom Rodriguez said last week the coaches consider a starter, too. Grandon has taken on more of a leadership role this season, which was on display at an open scrimmage this spring when he was vocal with younger players. Parks got better and better last season and brings some much-needed athleticism and speed to the position.
The road ahead: Devon Brewer is the only incoming safety in this class. The UA has so much depth at the position — even at the backup spots with guys like Lopez, Price and Sanders — that safety wasn’t much of a priority for the 2014 recruiting class.