Wildcats, Ducks take different routes to improve defenses
LOS ANGELES (AP) When Arizona and Oregon decided to make changes on defense after disappointing 2015 seasons, they did so in a wildly disparate fashion.
The Ducks demoted defensive coordinator Don Pellum and replaced him with former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, while the Wildcats completely overhauled their staff, adding rising star Marcel Yates from Boise State.
The varying approaches reflect both the coaches and programs that met in the 2014 Pac-12 title game won by Oregon. The Ducks have long valued staff continuity, promoting offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the top job in 2013 while five assistants including Pellum have been with the program for at least 13 seasons.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has never been a wallflower, removing his longtime coordinator Jeff Casteel in January and scrapping the 3-3-5 defense that had been a staple dating back to Rodriguez's tenure at West Virginia.
''Instead of just putting a Band-Aid on it, let's just go and start all over again,'' Rodriguez said at Pac-12 media day on Thursday. ''It was better just to start all over again, scheme-wise, personnel-wise, recruiting-wise. It just wasn't working out.''
An injury-ravaged Arizona defense allowed 35.8 points per game last season, with All-America linebacker Scooby Wright (knee/foot) limited to just three games and 25 different players making at least one start.
Rodriguez's search for a replacement was focused as much on personality as tactical acumen, leading him to the 38-year old Yates.
Defensive lineman Sani Fuimaono said the team relates well to the youthful energy of Yates and his assistants, which has carried over to recruiting. Arizona currently has 22 non-binding verbal commitments and its class ranks in the top 15 nationally according to Scout, Rivals and 24/7 Sports.
''The most encouraging thing I saw from our defense was just the renewed enthusiasm,'' Rodriguez said.
Oregon linebacker Johnny Ragin said Hoke has done the same for the Ducks, but Helfrich has been just as impressed with how Pellum has welcomed the change.
''What he did blew me away, just as far as his passion to sell Brady Hoke on the recruiting trail. . There needs to be a sociological study done about how great that was,'' Helfrich said.
Pellum has been with the program for all but two years since 1984 as a player, administrator and assistant, electing to maintain his ties to Oregon even after his defense ranked last in the Pac-12 in points and yards allowed last season.
''Coach Pellum is an Oregon man through and through,'' Ragin said. ''He has been there longer that a lot of us (players) have even been alive, so he is really dedicated to the program and dedicated to our success.''
For Oregon to rebound from a 9-4 season – nowhere near the recent high-flying standards set by Chip Kelly or quarterback Marcus Mariota – the defense must replace five starters from its defensive front. The tally includes standout lineman DeForest Buckner, who was drafted No. 7 overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
But Helfrich saw benefits from the turnover, enjoying how players pushed to make their mark while also absorbing the new two-gap system in the spring.
''We would have found a home for DeForest, don't get me wrong, but the newness, the freshness, the competitiveness that they approached it with was awesome,'' Helfrich said.