Arizona spring review: Defense
TUCSON, Ariz. – There are a few ways to look at Arizona’s defense coming out of spring practice, but there’s one undisputed one: It’s got to get better.
It seemingly can’t get any worse than it was last year, at least when it comes to numbers, because it was miserable. UA finished 105th nationally in scoring defense (35.3 points per game allowed) and 118th in total defense (499 yards per game allowed).
Of course, the Wildcats finished last in the Pac-12 in defense -- and still managed to finish 8-5 overall and win the New Mexico Bowl.
Imagine what they could have done with a decent defense.
In preparation for next season, it didn’t help that, because of myriad injuries, UA was limited in spring ball. Accordingly, tackling wasn’t a priority.
“Some guys were playing before their time,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said after the annual spring game earlier this month. “We don’t do a lot of tackling in the spring because we are worried about injuries, but we (got injuries) anyway. We did OK. We were limited defensively. They ran two coverages and two different fronts.”
More will be learned in August and beyond. But this is what Rodriguez knows now.
The good news is that it’s the old, reliable guys -- veteran inside linebacker Jake Fischer, for one -- who impressed most in spring. But Fischer was limited, in part because the coaches didn’t need to see what he could do. They needed other guys to step up, and a couple did.
Rodriguez said the Cats did get better on the defensive line, notably with senior nose guard Tevin Hood and senior lineman Sione Tuihalamaka, “but with so many guys out, it wasn’t a good evaluation.”
Look for senior Richard Morrison to have some sort of impact in the defensive backfield even though he’s just a rookie at the cornerback spot after switching from wide receiver. But he wants to play, and corner looks to be the best spot for him.
Apparently, he’s a quick study.
“That was a good move for us,” Rodriguez said. “He’ll be able to help us over there. He showed some good signs.”
As Rodriguez put it, “If we don’t play at a higher level, it doesn’t matter.” And he’s right. There really isn’t one position of strength. The strength will be that the unit will simply be more experienced and tested.
But will that translate to a better defense?
“We’ll have more competition when the freshmen get here, too,” Rodriguez said. “I wouldn’t say anything is a strength defensively.”
See above. Rodriguez said, “all of them," mostly because of depth.
That said, Morrison will help at the cornerback spot, and UA has some quality linebackers in seniors Fischer and Marquis Flowers and sophomores Keoni Bush Loo and Shadow Williams.
Former graduate assistant Matt Caponi was promoted to safeties coach “and did a nice job and knows our system,” Rodriguez said.
He replaces Tony Gibson, who had worked under Rodriguez for most of his coaching career but left for a job at West Virginia.
Caponi worked with current Rodriguez assistants Calvin McGee and Tony Dews at Pittsburgh.
It’ll come in the form of linebackers and defensive backs. But it is clear that some of the freshmen will have to step up before they are totally ready. “If they can learn, they’ll be able to help us quickly,” Rodriguez said. “We are so razor thin, and (in the coming year) we will still be thin, but we will have experience to have some competitive practices in the fall."