TUCSON, Ariz. — With Arizona through 14 practices, its final one before Saturday’s annual spring game taking place Wednesday night, coach Rich Rodriguez may have been stating the obvious with this assessment: “We need to make a lot of strides defensively.”
When a team finishes 105th in scoring defense (35.3 points per game) and 118th in total defense (499 yards) that’s neon-sign obvious. But every little step counts, and the Wildcats are taking some steps. That’s what spring ball is all about: Walk before you run.
With just three days left before UA’s final practice/scrimmage of the spring — scheduled for 1 p.m. at Frank Sancet Stadium — Rodriguez has been at least a little encouraged by what he’s seen. And every little bit counts when you’re at the bottom looking up.
Arizona finished last in the Pac-12 in defense last year. At least now, Rodriguez said, the players have an “understanding what we are doing and how we want to play.”
On Saturday, Rodriguez will “turn them loose” after they were somewhat constrained a season ago while learning the 3-3-5 stack defense, an unorthodox but aggressive one that may have been overwhelming at first. But the Wildcats are getting it.
“Sometimes you’re hesitant because you’re not sure where to go,” Rodriguez said. “So we want to reiterate things in our base defense and maybe let them turn it loose a bit. I’ve seen that from the guys (recently).”
Arizona junior safety Jared Tevis said it’s about playing smarter, playing with anticipation and doing the “simple things.”
And, oh yes, “playing like your hair is on fire,” he said.
No more stopping, dropping and, well, rolling over.
And any sign of life from the Cats on defense would be a good sign for the future. Remember that, come fall, Arizona’s top 12 tacklers will be back for Rodriguez’s second season.
“If the returning (players) are not better, we’re going to have the same problems,” Rodriguez said. “They have to be better than they were last year. I think they understand that.”
That much seems crystal clear. It’s a bit harder, though, when some of the key players are out or not at full strength. Three potential starters — linebacker Marquis Flowers and defensive backs Shaquille Richardson and Jonathan McKnight — are all out for spring ball with shoulder injuries.
“We wanted to develop depth, and I think we did that,” said senior linebacker Jake Fischer, the team leader on defense “We still have some young guys filling in spots who need to learn what they’re doing. It’s all a process, but from beginning to end, we did improve. Once we get the older guys back, we’ll have competition as well as depth.”
It’s helped that players have “matured faster than they needed to.”
Fischer mentioned his admiration for senior defensive lineman Tevin Hood, “who is making my life a heck of a lot easier,” Fischer said.
Tevis, who came on the scene last year out of necessity and showed talent and determination, sees a couple players coming on strong this spring.
He said sophomore linebacker Anthony Lopez, sophomore safety Will Parks and senior cornerback Richard Morrison have looked good. Morrison, a former wide receiver, moved to the defensive side of the ball just recently.
“We have a couple young guys that are proving themselves,” Tevis said. “Everyone is really working and getting better as a whole, so it’s exciting. They’re getting more reps with some of us hurt, so they’re trying to prove themselves even more.”
So, as UA wraps up spring ball, how has the defense performed?
“I’ll give it a B-plus,” Tevis said. “We’re doing well. We have days with high intensity, but we can still get to another level.”