The Arizona Wildcats’ defense wasn’t a point of pride last season, but there are reasons to be optimistic about it in 2018.
Here’s one: It led the Pac-12 in interceptions thanks to ballhawking cornerbacks Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns.
Here are three more: Linebackers Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II, and Kylan Wilborn.
The sophomore trio put up gaudy numbers in their first seasons on campus.
Schooler, a Freshman All-American, was the quarterback of the defense, tracking down ballcarriers all season to finish with 95 tackles (13.5 for loss), four sacks and two interceptions. Fields, another Freshman All-American, was a tackling machine off the edge, leading the team with 104 including five sacks. Then there is the pass-rushing prowess of Kylan Wilborn, who racked up a team-high 7.5 sacks.
Still, UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates thinks their best football is ahead of them.
“They’ve grown up,” he said. “I mean, they were babies last year.”
It only helps that Yates was one of two assistant coaches retained by new head coach Kevin Sumlin.
While Yates said Arizona’s defense under Sumlin won’t be identical to the one it ran under Rich Rodriguez — “there’s going to be some different calls,” he acknowledged — a lot of the concepts are similar, making them easy for the sophomore trio to absorb.
“I don’t think they understood the defense as well as they do now,” Yates said. “They’re older, they’ve been in the system for a full year, going through spring ball, going through summer, they understand it a lot better, they’re filling the gaps better, they’re more downhill, and then they’re just bigger, stronger, and faster.”
Yates would know. He trusts Demetrice Martin (cornerbacks) and John Rushing (safeties) to handle their respective position groups and has spent most of fall camp studying the front seven.
“It’s great,” Fields said of Yates being his position coach. “(Former linebackers) coach (Scott) Boone taught us a lot, but my thing is I think it’s great to have so many skill sets. So with the skill set that Coach Boone taught us, I’m carrying that over to the stuff that Coach Yates teaches us, and now that it’s Coach Yates’ defense, things are just a lot more fluent.
“We know exactly what we have to do and things like that because he touches on everything. He tells us when the corners messed up and things like that. So we know everybody’s responsibility on the field now.”
Fields felt he left a lot of plays on the field last season. Partly because he was inexperienced, but also because he was tired. Rarely, if ever, did UA’s star linebackers get to rest.
“When you’re tired you’re reading straight off the reaction. You’re not reading the keys as much,” Fields said. ”You’re eyes fall into the backfield, that was problem a lot. And now I feel like I’m more focused in on my plays more even when I’m tired, and that’s going to help me out a lot more.”
You know what else will help? More depth.
Yates emphasized the importance of having a strong second unit this season, and said up-and-comers Anthony Pandy, Jacob Colacion, and Texas A&M transfer Santino Marchiol could form that. (Though Yates still isn’t sure if Marchiol is eligible to play this season.)
“I want my twos to almost be ones, so it’s not a big drop,” Yates said. “We can’t have that.”
When all is said and done, Fields wants Arizona to limit opponents to 13 points per game (about 20 points per game fewer than last season). Yates refused to throw out any numbers, but did say his top priority is improving against the run.
Arizona allowed 32 rushing touchdowns last season, plus 4.7 yards per carry. Three times it surrendered 300 or more yards in a game.
Luckily, the Wildcats’ defensive line added lots of size — or beef, as Yates puts it — which will help them stuff the run. Or at least should.
“If the beef is in the wrong place, it won’t help,” Yates said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re filling our gaps. We have to make sure we’re getting guys in the right spot. We’ve got to use our hands better, we’ve got to get off blocks better, and so we’re harping on that right now.”
Not only can 300-pounders like PJ Johnson, Finton Connolly, and Mykee Irving eat up space, they can create it for the players behind them, too.
And the Wildcats sure have some good ones back there.
“The biggest difference is that we’ve got a couple more linemen,” Fields said. “The gaps are opening up way wider, and me, Colin and Kylan are seeing things way clearer.”