‘Tis the holiday season and Santa Rich Rod has been busy stuffing Arizona’s stocking with plenty of goodies on his first coaching staff. But there’s one present that for Wildcat fans would mean more than any sweater, power tool or iPhone: the arrival of a capable defensive coordinator.
Rodriguez’s hires have been promising thus far. Several key figures of his high-powered West Virginia and Michigan offenses are on board, as well as the coordinator of UA’s No. 39 ranked scoring offense this past season, Robert Anae. The latest Rodriguez made an overture to the burgeoning, in-state recruiting scene that gets better with each year, adding powerhouse Chaparral High head coach Charlie Ragle to the staff.
The addition of Ragle gives the Rodriguez-led Wildcats a unique connection to the Arizona prep pipeline. UA had not completely lagged recruiting in-state. Mike Stoops left behind one gift in Canyon del Oro running back Ka’Deem Carey, and Tolleson High product Mike Bell was a stalwart of the mid-2000s. But too often, the Wildcats lost out on big-time prospects like former USC offensive lineman Kristofer O’Dowd, who played his prep ball in walking distance of Arizona Stadium at Salpointe Catholic.
Even now, UA missed on quarterback Connor Brewer and cornerback Reggie Daniels, and is a non-factor for recruits D.J. Foster (Slot, Saguaro) and Rivals.com top 20 prospect Andrus Peat (OT, Corona del Sol). Ragle’s addition as assistant director of football relations/high schools relations liaison is a meaningful, and tangible step to rectifying past miscues.
In making such an impact with such a seemingly low profile position, Rodriguez has shown an ability to think big picture in shaping his staff. Perhaps that’s enough to placate the apprehension of some about the most critical vacancy to be filled, defensive coordinator.
Rodriguez has reached into his past with the hires of Tony Dews, Tony Gibson and Calvin McGee. Reuniting his former West Virginia and Michigan staffers suggests resuscitating the glory of Rodriguez’s WVU tenure, and a facet of that was the 3-3-5 stack defense.
Current Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel shaped the scheme into an effective art under Rodriguez, and remains in Morgantown under Dana Holgorsen. Yet Casteel received a contract extension last spring worth $400,000 annually. Matching his paycheck would certainly up the ante on a football athletic director Greg Byrne is already almost all-in on.
Moreover, the 3-3-5 may not be the answer for UA. While successful at WVU, when Rodriguez employed the scheme with Greg Robinson as its overseer at Michigan, opposing offenses ran wild. The Wolverines improved dramatically this season after transition to a more traditional, 4-3 set under Greg Mattison.
A scheme requires the personnel apt to run it, and UA’s ability to implement a 3-3-5 immediately is questionable at best. Rodriguez is in the unique position of having the talent to win his first season – certainly not at a Rose Bowl level, but with an experienced offensive line and several key players returning, a bowl game is well within reach.
The learning curve a 3-3-5 would require might prove too daunting for UA to match its immediate potential.
Furthermore, UA has a defensive tradition to which Rodriguez can look, and that’s where his retention of Anae and addition of Ragle factor. The new head coach is going to his roots to lay as the cornerstones of the new program, sure. But his willingness to integrate preexisting Arizona flavor suggests a willingness to adapt.
In the moniker of this very blog is the benchmark of UA defense: Desert Swarm. The 34 Flex gave the Wildcats an identity in the 1990s. Combine that with the uptempo offensive style for which Rodriguez is known, and UA has a balance that has always eluded the program.
The possibilities seem endless, and like a child on the week leading up to Christmas Day, each passing moment only intensifies the anticipation. Wildcats are hopeful that what awaits them isn’t a lump of coal.