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Arizona football: Wildcats defense had steep learning curve in 2015

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Injuries were a big concern for this defense, but the lack of experience also didn't help

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries seemed to have been the common theme for the Arizona Wildcats defense this season. But looking back at the defense from this year to last, I think the more important theme was inexperience.

Out of Arizona's top-ten tacklers from last season, Rich Rodriguez had to replace seven. The returners were William Parks, Jarvis McCall and Reggie Gilbert.

Those seven that had to be replaced: Scooby Wright III, Jared Tevis, Jourdan Grandon, Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jonathan McKnight, Cody Ippolito, and Dan Pettinato. All of these guys brought very valuable experience, and most had at least three years of experience prior to the season.

Replacing arguably the nation's best defensive player is near impossible for this team, and he often dictated an offense. Cody Ippolito was out with an ACL tear before the season even began. Anthony Fotu was suspended midway through the year for violating team rules. Derrick Turituri was held out a large portion of the season as well. And then you throw in Jake Matthews and his injury vs. Utah, which will keep him out for spring practice.

All of these losses, were on top of all the minor, weekly injuries you saw on the injury report. Jamar Allah, Tellas Jones, DeAndre' Miller, DaVonte' Neal, Sammy Morrison...all saw some time on the injury report.

But from the beginning of the year, Arizona was asking a lot of younger, inexperienced guys to step up.

Up top, you had a true freshman in Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles playing extensively, and will be a great 4-year player for this program. Every corner this season, aside from Jarvis McCall, was learning as the games went on to get the experience. So there's good news and bad news for the Arizona defense: all the corners will be returning for next season, including guys we didn't see much of such as Kwesi MashackDevin Holiday, and now even Sammy Morrison.

Sammy Morrison and DaVonte' Neal played great through non-conference, and then slowly started to drift off; Morrison, held out with a hamstring injury for some time, and Neal, adjusting to the Pac-12 receivers. That brought true freshman Jace Whittaker into the fire, as well as Cam Denson, who both had their own struggles as well. Finally, Jarvis McCall stepped back in, and came back to form to help bolster the secondary in a few games.

We truly saw the emergence of Tellas Jones and Paul Magloire this season. Tellas was a do-it-all guy for Arizona down the stretch of the season, and Paul finished the season second on the team in tackles. This, coming from a guy who didn't even start until week five vs. Oregon State, when he made the switch from safety to linebacker.

Down low, Luca Bruno stepped in as redshirt sophomore starter. Jack Banda and Parker Zellers, also redshirt sophomores, played an important role as well.

The great thing is, everyone mentioned in this article, aside from Scooby Wright (probably), will be coming back for 2016, bringing a wealth of experience with them.

Arizona will get their first look at former Iowa linebacker/fullback John Kennywho transferred this summer, as well Georgia transfer Matthew Stagg. Throw in the recruiting class, who will have a few immediate impact players -- London Iakopo particularly -- and the defense has time to take shape.

We have still yet to see Antonio Parks in an Arizona jersey, and guys like Dane Cruikshank, Sharif Williams, Marcus Griffin, Marquis Ware -- who are often asked about -- are still in development.

The 3-3-5 took some major heat this season, when in reality, the defense at Arizona has never been stellar to begin with. Sure, the Wildcats battled with injuries this season, but Arizona was already a step behind, trying to figure out how they were going to replace all the seniors they lost, as well as Scooby Wright and Cody Ippolito.