Stan Eggen’s vivacity cannot be obscured by his mandatory mask. It can be felt at a (social) distance.
“I pray to God I have the energy that old man has when I’m his age,” Arizona Wildcats defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell said, “because it is unbelievable.”
Eggen, Arizona’s new defensive line coach, is 67 going on 27. He’s animated and in-your-face — at least to the extent that’s allowed these days.
“I tell them it’s hard coaching; there’s never any yelling involved,” Eggen said. “I just have a passion for it.”
Eggen’s enthusiasm hasn’t diminished despite his being in the business for more than 40 years. During that time, he has coached multiple future NFL players, including All-Pro Von Miller. Eggen also has developed a set of standards to which all of his charges must adhere.
It starts with accountability.
“I want them to know that I want them to be the best that they can be, and I’m going to coach it that way,” said Eggen, who joined the UA staff in January. “If they want to be as good as what they say, then there’s some things that they’ve got to be committed to doing every day. If they don’t, that is going to be much more difficult.”
No one among Arizona’s current defensive linemen has a greater understanding and appreciation of Eggen than Blackwell. The graduate transfer played for Eggen at New Mexico from 2017-19.
That they both ended up at Arizona was something of a coincidence. “The perfect storm,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell attended Liberty High School in Peoria and spent a year at Mesa Community College before moving on to New Mexico. He put his name in the transfer portal and talked to UA coach Kevin Sumlin about possibly coming to Arizona. Then Sumlin hired his position coach.
“It’s just been the best situation I could have asked for,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said Eggen has become “like a grandpa to me” — cranky but wise. His style requires an adjustment for those who aren’t used to it.
“It’s a learning curve for sure,” Blackwell said. “You can see it in the guys’ eyes here; they’re still kind of getting the hang of it.”
Blackwell embodies what Eggen is looking for in a defensive lineman. Blackwell is tough, carries out his assignments and is willing to sacrifice personal glory for the greater good.
“He understands what it takes,” Eggen said, “how to practice and lead by example.”
Players don’t always mesh with new coaches right away. Senior Trevon Mason is by far the most accomplished returning defensive lineman on the UA roster. The junior college transfer posted 44 tackles last season, his first as a Wildcat.
But Eggen is looking for more from the 6-foot-5-inch, 305-pounder.
“Probably the biggest thing that Tre and I have talked about is consistency in his approach to practice, in his practice habits,” Eggen said. “He’s seeing that if I’m more consistent and attack every snap in practice, then there’s going to (be) improvement and I’m going to be more prepared for what I have to do.”
As Eggen likes to tell his players, “The rent’s due every day.” It doesn’t matter what you did the previous season, or even the previous practice.
“It’s today,” Eggen said. “And I think they’re buying into it.”
Blackwell’s road back
Blackwell enrolled at Arizona in January. But his participation in the Wildcats’ four spring practices was extremely limited while he recovered from surgery for a torn ACL suffered in New Mexico’s opener last year.
About 13 months removed from surgery, Blackwell is close to full strength. He still has moments of trepidation, but he’s gaining confidence daily.
“I’m fully cleared for everything,” Blackwell said. “I’ve been grinding every day since it happened to get back to perfect condition.”
Blackwell had to alter his weightlifting routine during rehab. Renowned for his lower-body strength — he once squatted 675 pounds at New Mexico — Blackwell built up his upper body while regaining strength and mobility in his leg. He recently was able to bench-press 225 pounds almost 40 times. (The top performer at the 2020 NFL scouting combine, Fresno State offensive lineman Netane Muti, did 44 reps.)
Blackwell also participated in physical therapy remotely during the early stages of the pandemic.
“It was a little unorthodox, but I give a mad shout-out to the training staff here,” Blackwell said. “When everybody got sent home, I was kind of left there thinking, ‘OK, I gotta do this by myself.’ They ended up Zoom-calling me almost every day, working with me for about an hour and a half. I built a little training room in my garage. … They helped me every step along the way.”
- Blackwell sports a thick beard and hair that drops below his shoulders. He had been growing it out since high school before a recent trim. “It was down damn near to my butt crack,” Blackwell said. “It was getting caught up with my pads.”
- Blackwell on freshman defensive lineman Regen Terry: “Regen Terry’s been lights out. He shows up every day with the right attitude, he’s always asking questions, learning. He’s got great technique. I don’t know what high school he came from (Florence), but his coach did a damn good job of getting him ready.”
- Other newcomers who have been heralded in interviews include tailback Frank Brown Jr., defensive lineman Roy Lopez and linebacker Derick Mourning. Brown and Mourning are freshmen. Lopez is a grad transfer from New Mexico State.
- The Wildcats conducted a light workout in shorts, mirroring their in-season routine for a Thursday workout.
- The quarterbacks and receivers worked on signals and alignments. The first group of receivers consisted of Brian Casteel, Boobie Curry, Jamarye Joiner and Jaden Mitchell. The next two up were Stanley Berryhill III and Drew Dixon. The second quarterback was Rhett Rodriguez.
- The walk-through pace to practice enabled freshman linebacker Jabar Triplett to participate to some extent. Triplett is rehabbing a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in spring.