Arizona Football: 5 Reasons Arizona's Defense Is in Trouble in 2012
Rich Rodriguez's debut defense at Arizona will feature:
*A walk-on true sophomore starting at defensive back—and in the critical Bandit role.
*A halfback doubling as a pass-rush specialist.
*A defensive line whose best player was on the scout team last year.
*One of the team's best safeties playing linebacker.
Those aren't the only issues, but in an unforgiving offensive conference like the Pac-12, that's enough to stir panic at the possibility of coughing up an average of 40 points per game.
The Wildcats came within a touchdown of doing just that last year, allowing over 35 per along with 460-plus yards of offense. That was before losing the program's best cover corner, Trevin Wade, and almost everything up front.
Rodriguez owns no illusions about what's going to hurt his crew in 2012 (via SI.com):
"The best way to compete is to have good players. I think we have some, but I don't know if we have enough. We've got to identify our problems and then work like crazy to fix them. And that's what we're doing."
Arizona's offense, on the other hand, does seem to own talent—including a couple players of the potential-star variety in running back Ka'Deem Carey and quarterback Matt Scott—and should score at a Pac-12 caliber.
It's the defense that appears to have multiple severe issues that could rank it among the worst in the school's history.
Here are five reasons why Arizona's defense is in trouble:
Adam Hall (pictured) was supposed to be positioning himself for the NFL Draft over the next seven months.
An aggressive 6'4", 213-pound safety, the Tucson local found himself in the middle of the rotation as a true sophomore in 2010, emerging with a reputation for big hits.
Then, he ripped his right ACL in the spring of 2011, returning for only one game that season—he totaled 10 tackles against Oregon State—before immediately having to call it all off prematurely.
And then it happened again this season, in the spring game. Same knee, same result. Torn ACL.
That's ended his redshirt junior campaign before it even started.
Besides Hall, linebacker Rob Hankins—a projected starter in Arizona's thinnest unit—missed the bulk of the fall with concussion issues, via CBSSports.com's Craig Morgan.
A starter is also likely to be missing along the defensive line early on, as Dan Pettinato hurt his leg in a fall scrimmage and hasn't returned.
It's similar circumstances for frosh linebacker Dakota Conwell and rotation lineman Kirifi Taula, as both have been sidelined with injuries (Arizona Daily Star).
Cornerback Jonathan McKnight, the younger bro of New York Jets running back Joe McKnight, was supposed to be among the key cover guys last year. But he suffered the same fate as Hall, tearing up his knee just before the year, thus losing the entire season.
Unlike Hall, however, he will be back soon.
While McKnight was not listed as a starter on the depth chart, he is finishing his rehab, according to Ryan Finley of the Arizona Daily Star, and figures to be on the field against Toledo.
That's a sliver of good news in a bleak situation.
Arizona's defense owns the worst depth in the conference, and injuries are exacerbating it all.
There is an experience deficiency among the front six in defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack scheme.
According to Ryan Finley, the best defensive end on the roster figures to be a fifth-year senior who spent last year on the practice squad: Dominique Austin.
The rest of the members of the d-line rotation are either lightly heralded, lack heavy D-I game action (besides Sione Tuihalamaka) or are returning from injury.
It's such a fragile unit that running back Taimi Tutogi will see action as a pass-rush specialist, along with his normal offensive duties.
Besides Jake Fischer—who also missed all of last year with a blown ACL—in the middle, the linebacking core is also scary fresh.
As mentioned, sophomore Rob Hankins was supposed to be a starter, but he remains out with concussion issues.
The depth chart lists a true freshman, C.J. Dozier, as the primary backup at two of the three backer spots. And another true freshman, Keoni Bush-Loo (who was recruited as a tight end), as the backup at the other.
TucsonCitizen.com's Anthony Gimino wrote about the possibility of Shadow Williams—a walk-on true freshman—seeing substantial time at the middle linebacker slot...a walk-on true freshman at middle linebacker.
And Marquis Flowers, one of the team's best defensive backs, was recently officially moved into the weak-side linebacker role.
In the defensive backfield, former walk-on true sophomore Jared Tevis is listed as the starting Bandit.
Four of the five backups among the DBs are either freshmen or sophomores, including another former walk-on in Blake Brady.
That's a lot of fresh faces with no college playing experience. Or in Flowers' case, no experience at the position he'll be at this fall.
Suspension cost Arizona a rotation member on the defensive line.
Rich Rodriguez placed former starting lineman Justin Washington (pictured) on indefinite suspension for a team-rules violation, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
That continued Washington's spiral into a major disappointment for the Arizona fanbase.
Following a true frosh season in which he garnered Freshman All-American status from The Sporting News, Washington regressed in bizarre fashion last year, becoming a non-factor while losing playing time. His tackle totals fell from 46 to 18, with just two tackles-for-loss. That's a significant, unexplainable decline.
He was also involved in that alleged off-campus brawl that caught up several members of the Arizona football team. Charges were eventually dropped against the current rostered players.
Despite all that, Washington appeared to be back in contention for a starting role at the start of training camp, before falling off over the last several weeks.
During an interview with radio host Jody Oehler on Tucson's ESPN 1490, Ryan Finley speculated that the suspension was likely due to a physical issue, with Washington possibly unable to keep up with the full-throttle pace of Arizona's new game plan.
There is still the possibility of his return.
If the Washington of two years ago is able to regain form, he'll be an asset to Rodriguez's defense, especially considering the lack of bodies on the line.
If not, his reputation as a bust will remain.
Rich Rodriguez scrapped all semblance of everything schematically from the Stoops era.
That means the players recruited during the previous regime—those who will see the bulk of playing time during the new guy's early years with the program—were not necessarily intended to be playing the roles they'll be thrown into.
It's new for everyone, which also means rookie mistakes are going to be a fact of life even for the upperclassmen.
The good news is that the 3-3-5—three linemen, three backers, five defensive backs—seems to take advantage of the one area defensively in which Arizona seems to have decent depth (or at least a lot of numbers): DBs.
That doesn't mean those guys will be playing roles with which they're familiar. Just ask Marquis Flowers (pictured) and his aforementioned change from safety to linebacker.
Position shifts like that occur out of need for bodies and also to keep the limited supply of Pac-12 defensive talent on the field. And those who are capable physically will be learning a brand new defense.
There won't be a defender on the field who's ever taken a live-game snap in the current defensive set-up on Saturday against Toledo.
Moreover, the Wildcats are less than a month away from visiting Eugene and the nation's most lethal offense, Chip Kelly's Oregon program.
Expect over 100 combined points to be scored in that one.
The offense will score points. A lot of them.
Matt Scott is a dual-threat prospect at quarterback—and yes, despite being a fifth-year senior, after floating behind Nick Foles for several years and redshirting in 2011, he's still a prospect.
Starting running back Ka'Deem Carey (pictured) owns all-conference potential as a sophomore. Dan Buckner, Richard Morrison and Austin Hill are all proven, Pac-12 caliber receivers.
The offensive line returns an experienced, well-acquainted group, including a Sporting News Freshman All-American back for his soph campaign in Fabbians Ebbele.
And they're all playing in a system that will constantly be in a hurry.
This style of offense is trying to get into the end zone as fast as possible. It's not going to put together too many long, plodding drives. Where that hurts the defense is in the amount of game action it will see.
A crew that's already stretched to the max in terms of bodies is going to see extended minutes due to Rodriguez's fast-paced spread on the other side of the ball.
Those walk-ons and true freshmen previously mentioned are going to see field time due to attrition, and they'll be devoid of the usual period of acclimating to a new level.
The offense will be both the best and worst thing to happen to the defense.
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