LOS ANGELES - Any inefficiencies Arizona football might have defensively will be tested early in the 2012 slate. Very early, in fact, with two of the nation's top eight scoring offenses
So is head coach Rich Rodriguez happy to evaluate this unit's effectiveness against top tier offenses so early into this tenure?
"Heck no," he said at Tuesday's Pacific 12 Conference Media Day. "I wish we were playing someone that struggled to get a first down. I don't like that, going against guys that can score a lot of points, that puts a lot of pressure on us."
UA unveils its new defensive scheme on Sept. 1 against Toledo, a team that in 2011 averaged 42.2 points per game. In Week 2, a revamped Wildcat defense that ranked near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision faces Oklahoma State. All the Cowboys did last year was score 48.7 an outing, second most in the nation.
Such a potent one-two punch welcoming Rodriguez, coordinator Jeff Casteel and the rest of the new defensive coaching staff is hardly a warm reception. But it is indicative of what UA can expect all season, with seven of the top 38 scoring offenses on the docket.
Linebacker Jake Fischer was less definitive when discussing the daunting opening, putting it in the context of the entire season.
"It's a good challenge coming right off the bat," he said. "We're going to see what we need to improve on...if we need to move stuff around a little bit. But going into every week, you move things around accordingly to the other team."
The movement to which Fischer refers will be one of the primary story lines early in UA's season. Much has been made of Casteel's 3-3-5 stack formation.
It proved successful at West Virginia, yielding defenses that ranked among college football's most stingy year after year. There is a certain air of mystery surrounding its implementation.
But like a magician pulling back the curtain on a trick, Rodriguez explained that the mystery is reliant on illusion.
"The 3-3-5 is more of a 3-4 than anything else," he said. "There are times when we get into a four-man front. But the 3-3-5 in itself is more of a mix of a 3-4 and a 4-2-5."
The removal of a fourth down-lineman emphasizes speed and athleticism. Quick defenses to counteract the increasingly explosive offenses seen around college football are en vogue. The SEC has won national championship with defensive speed, and the Pac-12 is now adding Southern influences.
Much of the 3-3-5's effectiveness is predicated on fluidity: linebackers dropping into roles ends might otherwise take on, defensive backs working into more blitzing packages.
"We may not have a lot of guys that are just dominant, defensive end types," Rodriguez said. "But we'll generate that pass rush with blitzing safeties, and linebackers and what have you."
The Spur and Bandit hybrid rover positions are critical to this end. Fischer described it as "a kind of safety-linebacker hybrid" that encourages big hits in the open field.
"I like watching Marquis [Flowers] and those other guys run that position. It's going to be a good fit for them," Fischer said.
All those facets have given UA defenders quite a bit to learn. Fischer admits it hasn't been easy.
"In the first week of spring ball, it was awful," he laughed. "[The offense] was busting a big play every time.
"After the first week, people starting knowing where they had to fill, what gaps they had to fill, responsibilities in the pass game...where to go when someone vacated a gap in the zone."
Fischer said the unit is "set on the basic stuff" heading into pre-season camp.
Where the Wildcats take it for Week 1 vs. Toledo, which Rodriguez said the coaching staff will begin to focus on two weeks out, is dependent on just how ingrained those basics have become.
"We can make it look more complicated than it really is [to opposing offenses]," Rodriguez said. "If you see us being more multiple, it's because [the players] are handling [its nuances] really well."
In a perhaps ironic twist, enacting all the lessons of the new playbook is predicated on not thinking, Fischer said.
"You want to be able to react, not having to think about exactly what you need to do, but to know," he said.