After an abysmal 2016 on defense, head coach Rich Rodriguez fired defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and hired Marcel Yates away from Boise State. Improvement has been slow—Arizona is coming off a season-high four sacks after last week’s victory over Colorado. While that seems like a positive nod to the defense, Arizona barely won that game and the defense actually gave up 551 yards. They did just enough to win, mostly in the first half, and with Khalil Tate’s record breaking game, this barn burner of a game resulted in the Wildcats beating the Buffaloes 45-42. The U of A defense was on the field for a total of 36 minutes and gave up touchdowns on each of Colorado’s final four drives. Running back Phillip Lindsay wound up setting the Colorado career record for all purpose yardage and added 281 to his total. Earlier in the season, Arizona gave up 562 yards to Northern Arizona University, who is not exactly known as a football powerhouse. Will the Bruins be able to wear down the Wildcat defense in the same way?
According to the Daily Wildcat, the defensive line is small, and this continues to plague the line. Their average weight is 255 pounds, which is actually more like linebacker size. Redshirt senior Parker Zellers returns on the line with the most experience, and sits up front next to Boise State transfer Dereck Boles and redshirt sophomore Justin Belknap. They lost Aiulua Fanene, Sani Fuimaono and Justin Holt, but they also return Luca Bruno and Finton Connolly. Additionally, Jack Banda has returned to his natural position at tight end. It was apparent last week that this unit has trouble getting to the quarterback. If our offensive line has made progress during the bye week, we can exploit this weakness and give Rosen time to throw. But don’t score too quick...we don’t want to see these less-than-a-minute touchdowns that leave our defense on the field longer than they need to be. Tate does NOT need to have another record breaking game.
Arizona’s top five linebackers from last year are all gone, and a big loss for this unit at the beginning of the season was redshirt senior DeAndre’ Miller. He came back last week against Colorado and recorded four total tackles and has been touted as Arizona’s biggest pass rusher. He is coming back with the most experience. With one game under his belt, I’d expect to see some additional improvement, so the Bruins better watch this guy. He is athletic and explosive and your textbook Pac 12 linebacker. Arizona lost Paul Magloire Jr. who finished the year with 81 tackles and went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Michael Barton and John Kenny rounded out the top three tacklers from last season. Returners like Jacob Colacio and Brandon Rutt and additions like freshman Tony Fields II (who enrolled early in the spring) are filling the gaps, and the linebacking corps has fared better than the defensive line this year. This group is dominated by freshmen and sophomores, and while they are young they are also talented.
The secondary was the only bright spot on the Arizona defense last year. They were young but made some key defensive plays and showed more signs of life than any other unit on this side of the ball. Junior Jace Whittaker led the team last year with 11 pass breakups and has defended six passes already this year. Almost everyone returns so this group will continue to work more cohesively and improve. If not this year, they will definitely be a strong unit next year.
I always hesitate to say we’ve got anything in the bag. You literally never know what you’re going to get, but this defense actually looks worse than ours. It was apparent last week that this defense can be worn down if their opposing offense can stay on the field. Rosen and Company will need to keep it together to show just how weak this side of the ball is, but if they don’t, we might see another shootout like the Wildcats had last week. But with such deficiencies on this defense, we should be able to fend these guys off.