Arizona’s defense looked different against Texas Tech, in more ways than one. Obviously, the Wildcats played way better on that side of the ball. They did it with a personnel grouping only seen for brief stretches previously.
It’s unclear whether that look was opponent-specific. But what Arizona did spoke to a general philosophy being promoted by Kevin Sumlin.
“We’re trying to get our best personnel on the field,” Sumlin said after last weekend’s eye-opening 28-14 victory over the Red Raiders.
It seems like something every coaching staff should strive to do. But it can be easier said than done, especially when the bulk of the roster consists of players you inherited.
Arizona primarily has played a 4-2-5 defense under Marcel Yates. The Wildcats have used a three-man line at times, but the fourth player typically was a defensive end who just happened to be standing up. Most of the time, three of the five defensive backs were safeties.
Against Texas Tech, Arizona used three linebackers on all 80 defensive snaps. They used three down linemen, two of whom oftentimes were 300-pound defensive tackles. And three of the five defensive backs were cornerbacks.
It added up to the UA’s best defensive performance since last season’s 44-15 victory over Oregon.
“We know a little bit more about our team personnel-wise and what to expect,” Sumlin said. “As coaches, we’ve got to put our guys in a position to be successful. That’s why you saw some of the things you saw.”
Regardless of the game plan, the coaches clearly view junior Anthony Pandy as one of Arizona’s 11 best defensive players. He was the third linebacker alongside regulars Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler.
Fields had a team-high nine tackles. Schooler had eight stops, including a team-best 1.5 tackles for losses. Pandy had seven tackles and one of the Wildcats’ two interceptions.
“Each linebacker that we had on the field … we brought something different to the table,” Schooler said. “It wasn’t like they could run a scheme and stop everybody.”
The trait the linebackers share, besides all being members of the 2017 recruiting class, is that they’re versatile. All three can play in space or near the line. Sumlin said Pandy’s pass-rushing ability, in particular, stands out.
“Pandy gives us the flexibility to really morph into a couple different fronts,” Sumlin said. “Him being a pass rusher and being active really helps us.”
The coaches also think highly of freshman cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, who has stood out since spring practice. Arizona has two established, veteran corners in Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker. The staff found a way to get all three on the field by moving Whittaker into a slot-corner role. The savvy senior even lined up as a deep safety at times against the Red Raiders.
“Jace is a really good player,” Sumlin said. “He gives us some flexibility in coverage.”
Whittaker has been Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded defensive player in the Pac-12 through Week 3. He leads the team with three interceptions. Arizona leads the nation with eight picks.
Roland-Wallace made PFF’s all-Pac-12 team last week after recording a career-high four tackles.
The best-personnel-on-the-field approach is evident on the other side of the ball as well. Jamarye Joiner moved from quarterback to receiver in the offseason, and Arizona has used more two-tailback sets than last year to take advantage of its depth and talent.
“It’s the same thing on defense,” Sumlin said.
For one game, at least, it made a profound difference.
Burns passes big test
Burns put together one of his best outings as a Wildcat, finishing with six tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. The performance illustrated the progress he has made in one specific area of his game.
Burns has been working with position coach Demetrice Martin on improving at what Martin calls “the moment of truth” for a cornerback. That’s the instant when the ball arrives. The receiver usually knows it’s coming. The cornerback needs to pick up on certain cues, get his head around and break up the pass — without committing an interference penalty.
“We’re trying to make sure that he doesn’t panic and get those unnecessary PIs,” Martin said during training camp. “He’s as fast as all outdoors; he can run with anybody. He’s getting better at it. We’ll see when the lights come on.”
Burns displayed excellent technique while covering Texas Tech’s lanky receivers, including the 6-foot-6-inch T.J. Vasher, 6-3 Erik Ezukanma and 6-2 RJ Turner.
“I just have to stay disciplined and play confident,” Burns said during the week leading up to the game. “That’s pretty much the base foundation or the attitude that every DB needs to have. Just be confident and trust in your technique against whoever you play, and you should be fine.”
Burns recorded Arizona’s first pick, capitalizing on a miscommunication by the Red Raiders and straining to get his left foot down inbounds. It was Burns’ second interception of the season. He had none last year.
Burns’ third and final breakup came on Texas Tech’s last offensive play.
“Lorenzo played great,” safety Scottie Young Jr. said. “He’s just been doing what Coach ‘Meat’ (Martin) coached him to do. Playing within our defense, playing with good eyes, good technique. That’s when you make plays.”
- Young, who played poorly in the opener at Hawaii, had his best game of the season. He finished with six tackles, one TFL and one PBU. He offered this explanation for his improvement: “Just taking coaching … working hard every day, taking every day like it’s a new day. Learning from the past. Learning different techniques. Learning where my help is. Lining up. Communicating. Being on the same page with everybody else.”
- Arizona committed a season-low five penalties against Texas Tech. The Wildcats were whistled for 21 fouls in their first two games. The five flags tied for the second fewest under Sumlin.