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Arizona football: Success awaits Rich Rodriguez, Jeff Casteel in 3-3-5 defense

Taking a look at the 3-3-5 defense

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

This year more than ever, Arizona Wildcats defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has received a lot of criticism about the 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Earlier this year, after the 55-17 loss at Stanford, Rodriguez spoke about the criticism of the 3-3-5, and showed no signs of any change coming soon.

There's no denying the fact that injuries hampered the defense this season. Arizona was without arguably their three best linebackers. Scooby Wright III, the best defensive player in the nation, was out for virtually the entire season. Cody Ippolito was out before the season even began, and Derrick Turituri only played in four games this season. That's not even mentioning the other injuries found throughout the defense (Jarvis McCall, Sammy Morrison, Jake Matthews, Haden Gregory, R.J. Morgan, Tellas Jones, Jamar Allah, Luca Bruno). To make things worse, Arizona also lost Anthony Fotu after week five, suspended for the year after violating team rules.

But injuries can't be to blame because Arizona's defense hasn't been spectacular over the last four years, although it is improving each year, with the exception of this year. Rich Rodriguez has been known as an offensive mastermind, never for defense, so it's not realistic to expect his team to be scoring as many points as they do, and limit their opponents to so few. Maybe if this were an elite program, where the program sells itself. But right now? Not a chance.

We're always so quick to throw the blame on the unconventional 3-3-5 scheme. And so few programs run the 3-3-5 as the base defense that it's easy to blame. The common phrase is, "there's a reason why no one ever runs this scheme," for the most part.

While teams aren't using it as their base defense, there are many teams across the country that run close to 20, sometimes even 30 plays in a 3-3-5 format, ranging from all "Power Five" conferences. Even the Big 10 and SEC, though people will insist that it would never work in a conference filled with size and power.

Look closely, and you'll see that Missouri, Arizona State, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Boise State, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, TCU, Ohio State, and even NFL teams are rolling out the 3-3-5 defense, in some manner. So when you're at home watching the bowl games this holiday season, pay close attention to the defense, and the fronts and scheme that they're running. All these teams are very respectable teams, and their coaching staffs have recognized that they too must adapt to the ever-so-popular spread offense, and rearrange their defense to stop it, turning to the 3-3-5.

The 3-3-5 defense offers more speed and variability on the field. And in a pass-heavy, spread offense league such as the Pac-12, having five defensive backs is extremely crucial. It puts a lot more pressure on those guys in the back end, but it adds multiple dimensions. Although, it's not entirely five defensive backs. At times, it's essentially like having another strong safety serve as a weak-side linebacker, with the ability to stop the run, or drop back in coverage as a safety. And when you watch, it can be used to simulate a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.

Disguising blitz packages, confusing an offense and having that unpredictability is a huge benefit to the 3-3-5. But there's a clear argument. If the opposing offense is putting up an average of 30+ points a game against our defense, is it really that confusing to the offense and proving to be unpredictable? Touché.

But when you look at the Pac-12, six teams in the past two years have given up an average of 28 points per game, and that could just be attributed to the offensive firepower of the conference. Arizona won the Pac-12 South last year, and was 8th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, giving up 28 points per game. Luckily, the offense has proved to be top 25 in the nation each of the last four years, despite the frequent three-and-outs and stalled drives, allowing Arizona to outscore opponents.

Personally, I'm not sure whether people are upset at the fact that Arizona only has three down linemen, or three linebackers in space. I'd be willing to say easily more than half of all college and NFL teams run a 3-4 defense, which also has three linemen up front. All these teams seem to have no trouble getting pressure, why isn't Arizona? That could be a multitude of factors, including coaching, personnel, or recruiting. So maybe the complaint is about only having three linebackers. Well, that bandit safety essentially acts like a linebacker a lot of times, but has the ability to rush or cover, giving the defense more flexibility.

So now the complaint turns to the lack of size necessary to run the scheme, you would think. If you want Arizona to run a 4-3 defense, good luck finding four defensive linemen that are ready for that. Arizona really only had Reggie Gilbert and Jeff Worthy as true threats on the defensive line, same as last year, with the addition of Dan Pettinato. You want a 3-4 defense? Well, this year Arizona had to turn to walk-on freshman Tre Tyler, checking in at 5-11 205lbs, and Arizona hasn't had great linebacker depth in the past either. Then it turns to recruiting, and people might say we'd have better players if we had a conventional defense, and that we'll never know.

We know Rich Rodriguez loves speed. That's the way he recruits, and the 3-3-5 has huge recruiting implications. It's all about guys who fit the defensive system, both physically and mentally.

But at the same time, when Arizona rises to the level of relevance where the staff is able to land some of those blue-chip, 4-star linebackers and defensive linemen that look the part of a big time playmaker, the scheme might hurt. Those top-notch guys -- the ESPN 300 guys -- might not want to play under this system. Why go to Arizona, when they can go to upper echelon programs such as Baylor, Wisconsin, Ole Miss, or Clemson, and play in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, learn the defense inside and out, and get them well prepared for the next level? There are many other factors considered for recruits, but you can imagine many recruits have that similar thought process.

Right now, you just can't compare this program to those that are beating out Arizona for those highly-touted recruits. Yes, everyone craves those hulking linebackers and defensive linemen, but Arizona's just not there, yet.

Rich Rodriguez has had to build this program up, with each sequential class ranked higher than the last. Rodriguez and the staff have proved to be a threat in recruiting, masking their 2-star/lower tier 3-star recruits with the OKG label, securing solid 3-star recruits, to now just barely missing out on some of the top guys in the nation: Kahlil McKenzie, Jalen Tabor, Naijiel Hale, Arthur McGinnis, Jonathon Kongbo, and so on. Soon that will change.

But from the recruits that I speak to on the defensive side of the ball, a lot of them love the 3-3-5 defense, which makes sense given their heavy consideration and interest to the program, and to this staff. The defensive backs love the openness, being able to blitz from anywhere on the field. The linebackers love the responsibilities, showcasing their talents in the box, in coverage and on the blitz. And the defensive linemen embrace the challenge of filling the gap, and getting off the block for pressure, assisting the guys behind them to make a move.

A big issue for Arizona over the years has been pass rush, and now they're finally getting guys that fit the defensive line mold. 6-4 290lb defensive tackle Markell Utsey, 6-0 300lb defensive tackle Justin Holt, 6-6 250lb defensive end Jake Burton, all incoming freshmen. And soon, they'll likely add Josh Allen back into the mix. Hopefully this year we also get to see redshirt freshman Sharif Williams, 6-2 315lb defensive tackle, to go along with the other defensive linemen still in development.

The linebackers should have plenty of depth for next season, with guys like Turituri, Ippolito, and Matthews all returning. To go alongside with Iowa transfer John Kenny, DeAndre' Miller, Kendal Franklin, Marquis Ware, and now Kahi Neves, who is enrolling early, among others.

The secondary might actually be the main area of concern next year, specifically corner. Cam Denson will likely flip to offense, leaving DaVonte' Neal, Jarvis McCall, Sammy Morrison, Kwesi Mashack, Jace Whittaker, and Dane Cruikshank all battling for a position, on top of some additions to the 2016 class, which includes Antonio Parks. At safety, there will be Tellas Jones, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, and Paul Magloire Jr., given his return back to the secondary. Throw in London Iakopo and the development of Devon Brewer, and the safety position might be thin, but more than serviceable.

So is this a personnel issue? Potentially. Like Rich Rodriguez says, it's nice for everyone to play arm-chair quarterback and think they know all the answers. It's nice to talk about what you should do and how this will work, because everyone always thinks they have the right answer.

But it could also be due to the fact that the level of competition in the Pac-12 is at an all-time high right now. From top to bottom, this conference is competitive, and possibly the best conference in the nation, as demonstrated with ten bowl eligible teams this season. Colorado is no longer a complete pushover, we've seen what Utah can do, and Arizona faces an uphill battle against the Pac-12 South rivals.

In the north continues to have Stanford and Oregon at the top, Washington State emerging as a threat, Chris Petersen keeps his Huskies competitive, Mike Riley is still getting acclimated at Oregon State, and California could be building something great in a few years with their recruiting classes, even without Jared Goff.

The Arizona defense was steadily improving through each year, with the exception of this year. Think what you want, but personally, I'm attributing that to injuries.

2012 2013 2014 2015
Points allowed/game (rank) 35.7 (106th) 27.5 (73rd) 24.2 (39th) 35.3 (105th)
Rushing yards allowed/game (rank) 188.5 (89th) 170.4 (74th) 167.8 (70th) 206.3 (107th)
Passing yards allowed/game (rank) 274.8 (116th) 279.1 (121st) 233.2 (70th) 292.2 (121st)

Arizona is going to allow more yards and points than usual for two reasons, I believe. One, their pace of play is so fast, whether they score in under three minutes, or go three and out. The time of possession, or lack thereof, gives opponents more drives, which in turn gives them more opportunities to rack up yards and points. Two, like I mentioned above, the Pac-12 is a high-powered offensive conference, with nine teams inside the top 50 for scoring offenses, more than any other conference in the nation. That just seems to be the nature of this offense and this league.

The defense was bad this year, and the defense hasn't been stellar over the last few years either. But over the last four years, it's been getting progressively better, as you can see above. As Rich Rodriguez continues to bring in guys fit for his system -- and continues to bring in higher ranked guys -- this program will continue elevating towards greater success. Player development isn't going to happen overnight, or maybe even from year one to two, or year two to three. But when you dream about the possibility of Arizona running the 4-3 or 3-4, there aren't a whole lot of options to fill in, and 3-3-5 or not, Rich Rodriguez is still going to recruit the defensive linemen or linebackers he needs. Because in all honesty, the defense doesn't have the complete personnel to run any specific defense, and that's where the rise in recruiting will take over.

But right now, this is Arizona Football. This program has never been to four-straight bowl games, and in four years, Rich Rodriguez already has a third of Arizona's bowl wins in program history. The 3-3-5 is here to stay with Jeff Casteel, and good things are on their way for this defense.

Maybe I missed an area of concern, maybe I reached a little too far in one area, but I'm just trying to lay everything out on the table when it comes to the 3-3-5. I see the arguments on both sides, but for right now, I fully believe in the 3-3-5 and Jeff Casteel. Also because I know that Casteel's services extended well beyond into recruiting.