Before his team played a game this season, Rich Rodriguez had a simple reason for why he thought Arizona’s defense would be better in 2013.
It couldn’t get any worse.
“If you give up 500 yards a game, you have to do something,” Rodriguez said of last year’s unit, which allowed 499 yards per game. “Hopefully we’ll be more aggressive.”
This year’s UA defense won’t ever be confused with the “Desert Swarm” defense of the early 90s, but did take significant steps back to respectability. Coordinator Jeff Casteel’s group finished eighth in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up 401.1 yards per game, and sixth in scoring defense, surrendering 24.2 points per game.
The UA played more guys and upped its sack total from 16 to 24.
“We’ve made some improvement, but we are still a work in progress,” Casteel said recently. “We’re a little better than we were last year, but we still have to continue to improve. Our effort has to improve.”
Here's a position-by-position look at the Wildcats' defense, how it fared, and who plans to return next season:
Who’s leaving: Tevin Hood, Sione Tuihalamaka and Justin Washington.
Who’s expected back: Calvin Allen (redshirt), Jack Banda (redshirt), Luca Bruno (redshirt), Reggie Gilbert, Kyle Kelley, Dwight Melvin, Dan Pettinato and Kirifi Taula.
Who’s coming: Jerod Cody, Sharif Williams and Jeff Worthy.
The big number: 22: The UA only loses three players off the defensive line, but Hood, Tuihalamaka and Washington combined for 22 of the line’s 31 tackles-for-loss.
The lowdown: Tuihalamaka, Hood and Gilbert started all 13 games this season and combined for 10 sacks after totaling four last season. Tuihalamaka quietly had a strong season for the Wildcats, finishing tied with linebacker Marquis Flowers for the team-high in tackles-for-loss with 11. Hood battled injuries late in the season, but was still productive. Gilbert never stands out, but had a solid season.
Pettinato, who tore his ACL in the offseason, was stronger as the season went on and should be a main contributor next season. Kelley, Melvin and Tuala will look for increased roles.
Final grade: B-: The line didn’t generate a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but it isn’t designed to under Casteel’s scheme. The group is still a bit undersized, which hurt them at times throughout the season. Opposing teams averaged 4.1 yards per rush, down from 4.6 last year, which the line certainly deserves credit for.
Who’s leaving: Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers
Who’s expected back: Keoni Bush-Loo, Ryan Dunn (redshirt), Hank Hobson, Cody Ippolito, Sir Thomas Jackson, Jake Matthews, DeAndre Miller, Derrick Turituri and Scooby Wright
Who’s coming: Jamardre Cobb, Antonio Smothers, Marquis Ware and David Wilkerson (transfer).
The big number: 83: Wright had 83 tackles and 9 ½ tackles-for-loss as a true freshman. He will be the anchor of the group next season.
The lowdown: Wright, barely recruited out of high school, was certainly the surprise of the group. He started 12 of the team’s 13 games and was named a freshman All-American by a couple of publications. Flowers started all 13 games and was more comfortable at the position this year after moving during fall camp in 2012. Fischer led the team with 99 tackles.
Turituri may be more suited for a defensive end role going forward, but showed flashes of promise throughout the season.
Final grade: C+: The linebackers developed more depth and the talent level was up from last season. But there were still shaky performances and missed tackles at times and they struggled to help the defensive line generate pressure.
Who’s leaving: Richard Morrison, Derrick Rainey and Shaq Richardson
Who’s expected back: Derek Babiash, Devin Holiday and Jonathan McKnight
Who’s coming: Rodney Carr, Patrick Glover, Naijiel Hale, Kwesi Mashack and Jalen Tabor.
The big number: Eight: McKnight had an up-and-down season, but had a team-high eight pass breakups and started all 13 games. He’ll be back next season with his 22 career starts.
The lowdown: Richardson and McKnight saw almost all the time at the two cornerback spots. True freshman Devin Holiday played on some third downs, but it was pretty much all Richardson and McKnight, who each started all 13 games. The duo combined for four interceptions and 12 pass breakups and improved from last season. In 2012, opponents averaged 292.8 passing yards per game. This year, that number dropped to 233.2 and the two corners had a lot to do with that.
Final grade: B-: The two corners struggled at times, most notably at USC and at home against UCLA. Other than that, they held up pretty well. Richardson had a dynamic game against Oregon and his tip to Wright that resulted in an interception on the first play of the game set the tone for the upset win.
Who’s leaving: Nobody
Who’s expected back: Jamar Allah, Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Blake Brady, Jourdon Grandon, Tellas Jones, Anthony Lopez, Jarvis McCall (redshirt), R.J. Morgan (redshirt), Will Parks, David Price (redshirt), Yamen Sanders and Jared Tevis.
Who’s coming in: Devon Brewer and J.R. Hunt.
By the numbers: 259: The safety position should be the most experienced position group in 2014. Starters Bondurant, Grandon and Tevis along with Parks combined for 259 tackles this season.
The lowdown: Undersized like the defensive line, this group developed quality depth throughout the season and held up OK in a pass-happy league. When Bondurant missed a game, Lopez filled in and did just fine. Parks started for Tevis twice and there wasn’t much drop off. Grandon was up-and-down, but had his best game of the season in the bowl game. Bondurant had a brilliant start to the season, but cooled off as the year went on. Offenses stayed away from him after the hot start though.
The safeties should be a strength of the UA’s next season with all three starters and Parks back.
Final grade: B-: The best thing this group did was create turnovers. Bondurant, Grandon, Parks and Tevis combined for nine interceptions and five forced fumbles. The safeties still have some room for improvement and teams completed passes over the middle of the field at east at different times this season, but their performance was a solid leap forward from last season.