Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: This is the year the Arizona Wildcats defense will put it all together.

The elements seemed to be in place a year ago. Marcel Yates was retained as defensive coordinator, ensuring continuity amid a regime change. The green freshmen who played sizable roles in 2017 would be rising sophomores in ’18.

Then the Wildcats hit the field, and the jump didn’t happen — at least not to the degree the UA and its faithful were hoping. Arizona again ranked in the bottom four in the Pac-12 in total defense, points allowed and third-down percentage. The Wildcats finished 5-7.

So the skepticism accompanying the usual optimism of training camp is understandable.

But if you really look at the aforementioned stats — and consider a handful of other factors — there’s reason to believe genuine progress is possible.

Let’s start with those numbers. Arizona allowed 432.0 yards per game last season — down almost 40 yards from 2017, when that figure swelled to 471.2. (It was virtually the same, 469.3, in 2016, Yates’ first season.)

The Wildcats surrendered 32.6 points per game — down from 34.4 in 2017 and 38.3 in ’16.

Opponents converted 41.1% of their third downs — down from 46.7 in 2017 and 52.6 in ’16.

In the most basic ways, the UA defense is trending in the right direction. It isn’t where Yates wants it to be, but it might be getting close.

“We just need to be consistent,” Yates said. “We need to be consistent as a coaching staff. We need to hold these guys accountable. We’re preaching that.”

Third down remains a bugaboo, and it was the common denominator when Yates and linebacker Colin Schooler addressed the media earlier in training camp. Although their percentage improved, the Wildcats still had trouble getting teams off the field, especially in medium- and long-yardage situations.

Arizona allowed 6.33 third-down conversions per game — 24th most in the country and fourth most in the Pac-12. The three teams that allowed more — UCLA, Oregon State and USC — also had losing records.

The Wildcats’ sack and turnover totals were down, and there’s no question they need to be more disruptive in third-down scenarios.

On all downs, Arizona ranked 78th in the nation in Football Outsiders’ “Havoc Rate.” Havoc Rate is calculated by adding tackles for losses, pass defensed (interceptions plus breakups) and forced fumbles and dividing that number by total plays. The 2018 Wildcats had a Havoc Rate of 15.5%. The best defenses in the country top 20%.

The development of third-year pass rushers Jalen Harris and JB Brown brings hope that the ’19 Cats can create more havoc. Asked to describe his expectations for Harris and Brown this season, Yates said: “Very high.”

Schooler implied that Arizona would take a more aggressive approach.

“We’ve gotta determine what the tempo is,” the junior said. “We’re going to show them, the offense, what they’re allowed to do, what we’re going to allow them to do, instead of them dictating what they’re gonna do to us. That’s going to be a big change.”

In addition, veteran cornerback Jace Whittaker — whom Yates called a “coach on the football field” – is back to fortify the secondary. Plus, as Yates noted, this is the first time during his UA tenure that the entire defensive staff returns from the previous season.

“In the spring, I wasn’t putting in a defense (or) teaching guys the terminology,” Yates said. “It felt good to go in the room. Now I’m getting ideas from Coach Rush (John Rushing), Coach Meat (Demetrice Martin), Coach Iona (Uiagalelei). Instead of starting from scratch … now we’re actually moving on to ‘OK, how can we get better?’”

Slimmer Schooler

While others, such as Harris, sought to add muscle mass over the offseason, Schooler went the other way.

The middle linebacker checked in at 229 pounds, down from the low 240s at this time a year ago. (The 6-footer’s official weight on the 2018 UA preseason roster was 236.)

“I was a little too thick, to say the least,” Schooler said. “I just started taking care of my body a lot better than I was.”

Schooler is no longer living on campus, and he’s making his own meals. Popular items on the menu include pasta, grilled steaks, broccoli and baked potatoes. Schooler said he feels faster than last year, when he led Arizona with 119 tackles and ranked second in the Pac-12 with 21.5 TFLs.

“I think he’s in the best shape he’s been in,” Yates said.

‘He gets it’

The first thing anyone mentions about freshman cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace is his physique. But his study habits – in the film room and classroom – also stand out, according to teammates and coaches.

“He gets it off the field,” Yates said. “Most young guys, it takes them a while to figure that out. They are away from home for the first time. So they’re kind of trying to feel their way a little bit.

“He’s a guy that stepped in here from Day 1 and was mature. He’s always studying. He’s in there with Coach Meat watching film all the time. He’s just a gym rat.”

Roland-Wallace enrolled in January. He’s pushing for playing time at corner and punt returner and will be a key member of other special-teams units.

Colin and Grant

Schooler has formed a connection with a freshman who plays on the other side of the ball.

Quarterback Grant Gunnell also was among Arizona’s early enrollees. He’s in the awkward position of trying to assert himself as a leader while understanding his place as a newcomer and a backup. Schooler was in a similar spot two years ago.

“I had trouble, a hard time, coming in my freshman year, being a leader, trying to tell fifth-year seniors what to do and line them up,” Schooler said. “So I understand what he’s going through. I talk to him. I try to give him pointers. And he’s been getting better every single day.”

Extra points

  • The Wildcats practiced in half-pads in an intermittent drizzle Monday. Linemen wore padded headgear over their helmets.
  • Zach Lord, the ex-Dallas Baptist basketball player who walked on to the UA football team, has switched positions and numbers. He’s gone from tight end to offensive tackle and from 85 to 75. Lord, a junior, looks the part for a tackle at 6-7, 275.
  • Lucas Havrisik went 1 for 2 on field goals of 50-plus yards. Both attempts had plenty of distance. Matt Aragon is serving as the first-team holder as of now.
  • Freshman defensive end Kwabena Watson returned to full participation. Offensive lineman Jon Jacobs remained out.
  • Schooler on making several preseason watch lists for national awards: “I’m trying not to pay too much attention (to) that. It’s an honor to be on those watch lists and to get some national recognition. But outside of this team, there’s really not much that matters.”
  • UA coach Kevin Sumlin‘s sons, Jackson and Joey, attended practice.

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.