Wildcats’ defense trending in right direction

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez inherited quarterback Matt Scott, running back Ka’Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill when he arrived, a trio of nice parting gifts from Mike Stoops.

No such luck on defense.

Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel began their rebuild with a few nice pieces, including now-departed linebacker Jake Fischer, but the words Rodriguez most often used to describe his defense in the first two seasons were "hanging on."

Depth? The Wildcats mostly were out of theirs.

A typical team will split its scholarships between offense and defense fairly equally, with a couple leftover for special teams. So, 40 to 42 scholarship defenders is the norm.

In Rodriguez’s first year at Arizona, 2012, he was playing with 28 defensive players who had been offered initial scholarships (excluding walk-ons who were later given full rides) — and 10 of those were true freshmen.

That number is now pushing 40.

There is still a ways to go in Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme, but size, speed and depth all have improved, and the trends are going in the right direction. Consider: Arizona allowed 6.59 yards per play in the final year of the Mike Stoops era. The Cats, even with all their initial defensive problems under RichRod, improved that to 5.98 in 2012 and then 5.26 last season.

"There was a little bit of a learning curve in the first year when Coach Casteel came in," said senior safety Jared Tevis, a walk-on-to-scholarship success story.

"We had to hone in on exactly what they wanted from us. But I think last year we made huge strides in that. And we’re looking to build off that and play with the physicality and the right mindset they want us to play with."

Here is a look at the Arizona defense in advance of the season-opener against UNLV on Friday night:

Reggie Gilbert

Projected starters: DE Reggie Gilbert, NG Jeff Worthy, DT Dan Pettinato

Arizona hasn’t had a sack-master on the defensive line since Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore were rushing off the edge in 2010. This group of Wildcats lacks a proven get-the-QB guy, although the three-man front often is asked to unselfishly clean up space for others to make those highlight plays.

Gilbert, who missed a chunk of time in camp because of a foot injury and is questionable for Friday’s season opener, has 21 career starts and 7.5 sacks. Fellow senior Pettinato made nine starts in 2012 but was slowed last season as he came back from a knee injury.

"He’s probably the healthiest he’s been in a long time," Rodriguez said. "He’s a tough guy, so he fights through injuries. But he’s healthy now. I think he’s poised to have his best season yet."

LSU graduate transfer Jordan Allen should see ample time, too. He is listed as a backup to Gilbert.

The line’s depth looked better in the summer.

Kirifi Taula had to give up football because of concussion issues. Sani Fuimaono, returning from a two-year church mission, showed up to camp with a foot injury, delaying his potential contribution to later in the season. Dwight Melvin, a prime competitor at nose guard, is likely ineligible, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

And junior college signee Jerod Cody’s career is over before it started at Arizona because of a concussion, the school announced Wednesday.

Player to watch: Worthy. He’s one of Rodriguez’s reclamation projects, a bounce-back player who was kicked off the Boise State team in February 2013. Worthy, after a season at Santa Ana College, gets to start over at a position in which Arizona desperately needs him to be solid, because the Wildcats still lack bulk and bodies at nose guard.

Scooby Wright

Projected starters: SLB Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea, MLB Scooby Wright, WLB DeAndre Miller

There is one known: Wright.

Scooby was a puppy last season, eager, excited, running around and running into some tackles. He was selected honorable mention All-Pac-12 and earned some freshman All-America honors after his 83-tackle season.

What does he think when he looks at game film of himself from last season?

"You don’t even want to know," he said with a laugh. "They say ‘freshman mistakes.’ I made a lot of stupid, freshman mistakes. Those are the things I’m trying to limit and just play ball and not try to think too much."

The thinking, he hopes, will come naturally in his second year, because he needs to be a smart guy. He has moved from an outside position to the middle to better direct the defense and take charge of a mostly young, inexperienced linebacker corps.

It’s anybody’s guess how the outside spots shake out. Five player were listed as co-starters on the initial depth chart — Kema-Kaleiwahea (formerly named Keoni Bush-Loo), Derrick Turituri and Cody Ippolito on the strong side, and Miller and Jake Matthews on the weak side. All are sophomores, expect for Kema-Kaleiwahea, who is a junior.

Matthews, from Tucson Ironwood Ridge High School, was a 38th-round pick in the June 2013 baseball draft and had scholarship offers, including one from Arizona, to play that sport in college. Instead, he decided to walk-on to the football team.

"Jake is going to play a lot," Rodriguez said. "He is on almost every special teams formation, and he is competing for a starting spot on defense. He is still young and we are really proud of him."

Player to watch: Turituri. He was part of Arizona’s pass-rushing SWAT team unit that came in for obvious passing downs last season. He is likely to reprise that role this season, and, at 6-foot-1, 265 pounds, might end up being a full-time lineman at some point. "He’s a pretty good pass rusher, because he’s such a powerful guy," Rodriguez said. "He bench presses well over 400 pounds and he squats half the building."

Jonathan McKight

Projected starters: Jonathan McKnight, Jarvis McCall

McKnight, a senior, was a given, although his junior season was uneven. He has 22 career starts. The rest of Arizona’s cornerbacks have none.

"He has gotten stronger and he is healthier than he has ever been," Rodriguez said of McKnight. "I think he is going to have a big year for us, and he needs to."

Perhaps the happiest development of camp was McCall’s emergence. He originally signed with South Florida in 2012, but was not eligible and did not enroll. He showed up at Arizona with full eligibility last summer. He redshirted and then hardly made a ripple this spring.

"He had a good summer and got in shape, and he had a really good camp," Rodriguez said.

And McCall has attractive size at the position — 6-feet-2, 182 pounds.

With the talented spread offenses in the Pac-12, defenses need more than two good cornerbacks. Arizona will look to sophomore Devin Holiday and true freshman Cam Denson in nickel and dime packages.

Player to watch: Denson. Cornerback could be just a one-year diversion before he’s put at receiver, but his athleticism and on-ball skills make him an intriguing option on defense right now. Question: Can he be physical enough at corner?

Jared Tevis

Projected starters: Will Parks (spur), Jared Tevis (bandit), Jourdon Grandon (free)

The back end should be the strength of Arizona’s defense, especially when senior Tra’Mayne Bondurant earns his way completely out of Rodriguez’s doghouse. Bondurant, a 30-game starter who began camp with discipline issues, should play in the opener but won’t start.

Coaches are plenty comfortable with Parks in Bondurant’s hybrid safety/linebacker spur position, a playmaking spot in Arizona’s 3-3-5 scheme. Parks, a junior who can play all over the secondary, was the Defensive MVP of the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, thanks to his 69-yard interception return for a touchdown.

"I’m willing to go anywhere the coaches want to put me," he said during camp. "I’ve had a chance to play every position, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of staying focused and learning different keys and concepts."

Tevis is a bulldog, a hard-hitter who worked his way up from walk-on to third-year starter. Fellow senior Grandon has been steady and improving; he’s a 26-game starter.

Player to watch: Bondurant. It will be interesting to see how quickly he can get up to speed and how much he has to share time. His return to good graces gives Arizona the kind of experienced depth at safety that Rodriguez could only dream of when he arrived.

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