clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Health, improved communication key to Arizona defense

health-improved-communication-key-arizona-wildcats-defense-2018-college-football Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats had one of the top offenses in the country last season, ranking fifth in scoring and 12th in yards per game. The run game was third-best nationally, averaging more than 309 yards per contest with a 6.56 yards-per-carry rate that led FBS.

Yet the Wildcats only managed a 7-6 record. What gives?

The defense did. Quite a bit, actually.

Arizona allowed 34.4 points per game in 2017, 109th out of 130 schools and fourth-worst among teams that made bowls. Only SMU (36.7), UCLA (36.6) and North Texas (35.0) saw opponents light up the scoreboard more frequently.

The reasons for why Arizona was so bad on offense were many, though most were correctable. The rampant youth on that side of the ball has fixed itself with freshman becoming sophomores, etc., but the players have put it on themselves to improve the other areas.

“Health is the main thing,” senior cornerback Jace Whittaker said. “You take care of your body in the off season and continue to take care of yourself throughout the season.”

Whittaker was one of several defensive players who dealt with injuries in 2017, his being a foot ailment, and that affected his effectiveness. He still managed to record three interceptions and a team-best 13 pass breakups and he enters this final season at 100 percent.

“I’m feeling great,” he said. “I’m at tip top shape and I’m glad to be out there flying around. Personally I wanted to get better, stronger so I can last a little longer through the season since I dealt with some health issues.”

Bulking up his 5-foot-11 frame from 170 pounds to 190 also helps in that regard.

Another issue, Whittaker noted, was a lack of talking among the defenders, whether that be during games or off the field. This offseason and into the summer the dialogue improved, and one of the first things that everyone agreed on was the scoring defense had to improve.

“I learned that 34 points, that we averaged giving up, nobody liked that,” he said. “And so communication was a big thing. We’re starting to do a lot of communicating, vocal echoing things, you know, even though it is said by one person, relay it back by saying it again.”

Arizona’s cornerbacks are under the guidance of Demetrice Martin, the fourth assistant in as many years that Whittaker has been coached by. Last year it was defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who this fall is focusing on linebackers, and prior to that it was Donte Williams and David Lockwood.

“I take it as a blessing,” Whittaker said of the coaching turnover. “You know, each cornerback coach has something good, has something positive.” And Yates remains available for the corners if needed: “the door’s always open for questions.”

Despite its horrid overall defensive numbers, Arizona led the Pac-12 (and were tied for seventh nationally) with 19 interceptions. Some of that was from the sheer volume of passes thrown by opponents, nearly 38 per game, but also because of the aggressiveness of the secondary.

That hasn’t changed despite the new coach in charge, Whittaker said.

“We’re going to be flying around,” he said. “We’re going to be the leaders of the defense by talking to everybody. The way we play is going to be contagious.”