Editor's note: Each week throughout the football season, we’ll take an in-depth look at the Arizona Wildcats from a statistical perspective. Here’s the premier edition of “Cats Stats.”

The season is still a couple of days away for the Arizona Wildcats, so hope and optimism abound. In the case of the UA defense, there are legitimate reasons to believe improvement is coming.

First-year coach Kevin Sumlin cited two factors when asked what makes him feel confident in the defense: continuity and experience.

Both are quantifiable. The numbers show just how far the Wildcats have come in defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’ two-plus years in Tucson.

To measure continuity, we looked at games played under Yates. We limited it to the starting lineups for Week 1 in each of his first two seasons, plus the projected lineup for BYU on Saturday night.

In 2016, no one had played a game under Yates. He was new, and the system was new.

The defense had its best game in the opener — against BYU, coincidentally — allowing a season-low 18 points. It got progressively worse, as injuries, insufficient depth and a lack of size conspired to undermine the unit.

In 2017, the Week 1 lineup featured 84 games played under Yates. That group included five full- or part-time returning starters; transfer Dereck Boles, who played for Yates at Boise State in 2015; and three true freshmen.

Another rookie, linebacker Colin Schooler, eventually would join them and become the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Classmates Tony Fields II and Kylan Wilborn also would earn postseason accolades. Although the defense improved in some areas, such as takeaways and three-and-outs, its overall performance left Yates and his charges unsatisfied.

If the players were still trying to get a feel for Yates and his scheme last year, that shouldn’t be the case anymore. The projected starting lineup for Saturday features a whopping 189 games played under Yates. Only one player, defensive tackle PJ Johnson, hasn’t played for Yates. Johnson arrived in January from City College of San Francisco.

Johnson is also the only defender who’s projected to start who hasn’t played in a game with his current teammates. Sumlin can sense that the defense has a chemistry that the offense — which is learning a new scheme and breaking in a new group of linemen — hasn’t developed quite yet.

“We’re in the same playbook,” Wilborn said. “We’re still adding new things and doing a lot of new stuff, but those guys (on offense) have to make a bigger jump than the defense.”

Said cornerback Lorenzo Burns: “I believe a team, especially a defense, if they have experience with each other, if they’re comfortable with each other and they know how to push each other and they know how to address each other as far as making adjustments on the field … you can make great strides. You can shut down offenses because you’re playing as one.”

Defensive tackle PJ Johnson is the only projected starter on defense who has yet to play a game under coach Marcel Yates.

For the experience component, we looked at career starts for the 2016, ’17 and ’18 Week 1 lineups.

In ’16, the defense actually had a decent amount of experience: 87 career starts. Only two players, defensive end Justin Belknap and defensive back Dane Cruikshank, hadn’t started a Division I game.

In ’17, the defense took a step backward in that regard. With those three freshmen (Fields, Wilborn and safety Scottie Young Jr.) in the lineup — plus Burns, a redshirt freshman at the time with no starting experience — the defense had only 60 career starts.

This year’s projected lineup for the opener has 143 total starts — almost as many as the previous two years combined. Senior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles leads the way with 26 career starts, followed by senior cornerback Jace Whittaker (23) and redshirt junior Belknap (22).

Sumlin is a big believer that no experience is quite like game experience.

“There’s no doubt that you get better by playing,” he said.

Whittaker explained it like this: “At first you don’t really know what you’re doing. You just go out there and do what you’re told. Now everybody (has a) grasp of it and they can add their twist to it and play football.”

Yates went young last year knowing there would be bumps along the way. As difficult as it is to do in this business, he assembled the defense with the future in mind.

“I thought that playing so young, getting that experience would help us out in the long run,” Yates said. “Having those guys out there, it made them grow up a lot quicker. There’s still some growing pains there, but they’re getting better each day.”

As Sumlin has noted several times, last year’s freshmen are this year’s sophomores. Wilborn, among others, has described the familiar sensation of the game “slowing down” in Year 2.

“If that’s the case,” Sumlin said, “then we ought to be a little better than we were last year.”

Maybe more than a little.


Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.