Ask any Arizona coach what it will take to fix the Wildcats defense, and they’re liable to open with a question of their own:
“Where do I begin?”
The UA defense did not perform well in any facet last season. As coach Rich Rodriguez put it this week: “We were so bad in so many areas for a lot of different reasons.”
With training camp underway since Monday, Rodriguez and his staff — led by defensive coordinator Marcel Yates — officially have entered Year 2 of this reconstruction project. It has been fraught with delays and complications.
But the coaches and players remain hopeful of a turnaround, and there are reasons to believe improvement, however incremental, is achievable.
The first step comes in identifying the biggest problem among many. Rodriguez cited the 2016 Wildcats’ inability to get quick stops via takeaways or three-and-outs.
“The only way to control the tempo of the game on either side is for your defense to get quick stops,” Rodriguez said.
Arizona had just 14 takeaways last season, the second fewest in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats forced a three-and-out on only 14.1 percent of their defensive possessions, according to SB Nation’s Football Study Hall. That percentage ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams.
The UA offense didn’t help the cause. The Arizona O had the 36th highest percentage of three-and-outs (23.72), per SB Nation. The difference between the two — minus-9.6 percent — was ninth worst in the country.
But we’re here to talk about the defense and the ways to go about upgrading that side of the ball. To solve the quick-stop problem — which, alas, isn’t a quick fix – Arizona has elevated its athleticism and depth.
The Wildcats have added a bevy of fleet-footed safeties and linebackers with good enough size in their past two recruiting classes. Some played significant roles last season; even more will be in the mix this year.
Rodriguez wants them to play with unbridled aggression and confidence. Getting to that point can take time.
“Some of that confidence comes naturally with experience,” Rodriguez said. “When you’re a freshman, you’re afraid to not get beat. That’s a bad mentality to take.”
It won’t stop Arizona from placing young players into prominent roles. Two of the three projected starters at safety — Isaiah Hayes and Tristan Cooper — are true sophomores. Three of the four players who could rotate at the two linebacker spots — Jacob Colacion, Tony Fields II and Gavin Robertson Jr. — are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“We don’t have a lot of seniors,” Colacion, a redshirt freshman, said of the linebacking corps. He then corrected himself: “We don’t have any seniors.”
Arizona’s youth at linebacker has thrust Colacion into something of a leadership position, even though he never has played a down of college football. Colacion and redshirt junior Brandon Rutt could share time at the signal-calling “Mike” linebacker position. Some of the other candidates, such as freshmen Josh Brown and Colin Schooler, just arrived on campus.
Yates has no problem putting his trust in younger players. He doesn’t see youth as a detriment, if he sees it at all.
“When a guy’s out there playing, I’m not looking at if he’s a freshman or if he’s a senior. I’m looking at what he can do for us,” Yates said. “Can he get lined up? Can he do his job? Can he play his technique? Can he play fast? Can he play in the Pac-12?
“I’ve played freshmen. I’ve played seniors. It doesn’t matter what a guy is as far as his age. If he can play, he can play.”
As far as the depth issue — a critical component to combat up-tempo offenses and cope with injuries — Rodriguez insists Arizona will roll out something akin to two full defensive units. Like increased tight end usage, this has been an unfulfilled campaign promise thus far in Rodriguez’s tenure. But he was adamant about it late Tuesday night.
“We’re going to force ourselves to (use more players),” Rodriguez said. “If we don’t, it’s back on us as coaches.”
Mother’s Day present
Rodriguez constantly pushes the idea of Arizona having a “hard edge,” but the 54-year-old coach also has a soft side.
When Arizona awarded defensive end Justin Belknap a scholarship in May, Rodriguez turned the occasion into a Mother’s Day gift for Belknap’s mom, Anna.
Justin and his mother were driving home from church that Sunday when Justin received a call from an unknown Tucson number. It was Rodriguez, who asked to speak with Anna.
“He told my mom that they wanted to put me on (scholarship),” said Belknap, a redshirt sophomore who started 11 games last season. “My mom just started crying. I knew right away what it was.”
- Rodriguez again came away impressed with the defense’s activity level in the third camp practice Wednesday evening.
- Defensive tackle Sione Taufahema is not part of the camp roster after recently undergoing a knee scope. His status for the rest of training camp is uncertain.
- The coaches are limiting receiver Cam Denson’s reps as he recovers from a foot injury suffered in spring.
- Rodriguez said freshman receiver Brian Casteel has done a good job of grasping the offense and might be able to contribute this season if he gets in better shape.
- The Wildcats mostly have avoided the rain thus far, but that doesn’t mean Rodriguez isn’t pining for an indoor practice facility. Athletic Director Dave Heeke commented on the UA’s various construction projects during his “Wildcat Wednesday” newsletter e-mailed to alumni: “We are going to be aggressive in addressing our facility needs, but we need to be smart in our approach. As we lay out our plans for the future, we want to do our best to ensure we’ll be effective across the department. We’ll share those details with you as we solidify plans and timelines.”