The Arizona Wildcats’ defense started the 2017 season in nearly the worst way possible, allowing a 45-yard pass deep down the middle of the field on the very first play of the game.
It set the tone for what would be a lackluster defensive showing, as the Wildcats surrendered 562 yards to NAU.
377 of them were through the air.
“The first play was a double move, and actually we called a blitz and we should have had somebody in the guy’s face,” said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. “Jace (Whittaker) was playing him tough, the guy hit him on a double move, and I think with us bringing a blitz, he thought he probably wasn’t going to have time for the double move and actually if we came as hard as we should’ve he wouldn’t have had time for the double move. So we all have to be on the same page and understand that when we’re blitzing, we need to get there, not jog. We need to sprint to get to the quarterback.”
Arizona gave up several more big-yardage completions and head coach Rich Rodriguez said both Saturday and Monday that the Wildcats simply struggled to cover the deep ball.
“A few of those (plays), we were actually in good position, we just panicked,” Yates said. “And so I’m trying to get them to understand that when they’re in good position, don’t panic. Find the ball.”
What exactly does Yates mean by don’t panic?
“When you see the ball in the air, don’t make a mistake like grabbing the receiver or getting yourself out of position, that’s what don’t panic means,” said cornerback Lorenzo Burns, who made his first career start Saturday. “And we did do some of that last week, but this week I’ll think we’ll be more collected and focused.”
Yates said the cornerbacks were passive and didn’t trust their technique. Burns said he had an “average game.”
“As a secondary as whole, we’ve been working on playing the ball better, recognizing our routes better and being great with our hand placement, getting the ball out,” Burns said.
The Houston Cougars, Arizona’s opponent this Saturday, averaged just shy of 300 passing yards per game last year, and although they will be starting a new quarterback (who will be revealed Friday), they will surely put the Wildcats’ shaky secondary to the test.
“We’ll get it cleaned up,” Yates said. “Obviously they’re (our secondary) not trying to get beat deep, but at the same time they have to have good technique and good eyes and trust their ability.”
Houston’s scheduled season-opener against UTSA was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey, which means Arizona does not have any current game film on the Cougars’ offense.
Plus, UH has a new head coach and quarterback this season, making it even more difficult for Arizona to prepare for them.
“Everything you’re going off of is from the past season,” Yates said. “There’s going to be some new plays that you’ve never seen obviously, but it is what it is. That goes back to having your guys understand that they have to be disciplined and read their keys.”
Rich Rodriguez talked about Arizona Football's defense, Houston QB Kyle Allen, potential changes to the NCAA transfer rules and more after practice todayPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Arizona rotated in several defensive linemen Saturday, which Rodriguez said is “ideal.”
“We’re forcing ourselves to play more people,” he said. “It’s a long season ad guys get banged up but we’ve got to play more people on both sides of the ball. We were able to do that Saturday but we’ve got to do it every week.”
Ex-Boise State lineman Dereck Boles debuted for the Wildcats, making his first start.
After the game, Boles’ father told him he “looked lost out there.”
“I didn’t play my best game at all,” he said. “I didn’t run to the ball.”
Boles had a good excuse, though. He got the flu Friday.
He didn’t tell his coaches.
“I didn’t want that to be the story, so I went out there and did what I could do and I feel like I’m going to have a better game this game and not just me but as a defense as a whole,” he said. “Last game we won, we gave up 500 something yards. That’s not the standard at all and that’s not the standard that we want to hold for ourselves.”
Boles has been playing the Ed Oliver role in practice this week, using his size and athleticism to mimic Houston’s star defensive tackle, helping prepare UA’s offense for Saturday.
Houston won’t be naming a starting quarterback until Friday, but Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen is expected to win the job.
Rodriguez said he’s known Allen for a long time.
“He’s a great thrower. He’s an athletic guy and he’s got experience,” Rodriguez said. “He’s played in SEC games, he’s obviously an older guy that knows the system. He’s a really, really good player. Everybody in the country wanted him.”
Allen, a junior and Scottsdale native, threw for 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in two seasons with the Aggies.
Five different Arizona running backs — Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor, Zach Green, Branden Leon, and Nathan Tilford — got carries against NAU and Rodriguez said he feels good about the depth there.
“We came in with three or even four with Branden Leon that we felt comfortable with experience-wise,” he said. “We weren’t sure if we were going to play Nathan with the way the game was going. But with the way he’s practicing, we’ve got to get him some experience.”
Tilford, a true freshman and former four-star recruit, had four carries for 79 yards, including a 66-yard run in his debut.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire