Arizona preview: Familiarity, depth should fortify defense

TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s a new day and a new year when it comes to Arizona’s defense, which of course, means only one thing: It’s gotta get better … right?

Last year’s defense was bottom-of-the-Pac-12-barrel bad, giving up 35.3 points per game and 499 yards in total offense. The Wildcats were also dead last in sacks with a paltry 16 in 13 games.

“It was bad,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Just a bad defense.”

What does he hope to see this year?

“Better,” he said, drawing laughter from a media that witnessed most of the bad. “I hope I don’t have to see a bad one again.”

The good thing is Arizona returns all 11 starters who are more familiar with Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme. And the Wildcats have upgraded their depth compared to last year.

“We knew we had issues coming into (last season),” Rodriguez said. “Back in the first game last year, we were really really nervous in a lot of spots. We were just hanging on the entire season.”

As many as six freshmen are listed on Arizona’s two-to-three man depth chart on defense to start the season.

“We’re a lot further than we were last year,” Rodriguez said.

Three to watch

Freshman linebacker Scooby Wright: He’s burst onto the scene by showing a willingness to learn and work hard. And now he finds himself No. 1 on the depth chart at strongside linebacker. He’s athletic and talented and the only freshman listed as starter on defense.

Senior tackle Tevin Hood: So far, he’s known more for his involvement the end-of-the-season sideline fight at last year’s New Mexico Bowl than his work on the field. That should change this fall for the well-spoken lineman who gets the job done and is a teddy bear outside and a tough guy inside.

Senior linebacker Jake Fischer: A tough, smart leader, Fischer is the glue to Arizona’s defense. He won’t allow his teammates to slack off. Look for him to contend for All-Pac-12 honors.

What’s to like

Arizona’s depth will allow for more flexibility and more rest. Last year, the entire defense was frequently gassed, often having to play up to 100 snaps with nary a breather. What’s really to like is the group has a collective chip on its shoulder in wanting to prove it is better than last year’s horrific showing.

What’s to worry about

Outside of Fischer, there’s really no true standout. That’s especially true on the defensive front, which needs to prove it can generate a pass rush and control the line of scrimmage. Arizona has better depth, but it’s also young, inexperienced depth. Many freshman will be tested early. Fortunately, the Wildcats’ early season schedule could allow for plenty of on-the-job training before the heavy lifting begins.