When Marcel Yates was brought in as the Arizona Wildcats’ defensive coordinator in 2016, replacing Jeff Casteel, the hire was widely praised.
It showed a willingness of then-coach Rich Rodriguez to go outside his comfort zone, adding a young assistant known for recruiting rather than stick with the tried-and-true old-school coaches he’d worked with throughout his career.
But while Yates’ acumen on the recruiting trail has shown in his two-plus years with the Wildcats, his in-game performance has left a lot to be desired.
Arizona ranked 119th (out of 130 FBS schools) in total defense last season, down from 115th in 2016 when the team posted an abysmal 3-9 record. It allowed 34.4 points per game, fourth-worst among schools that played in bowls, ranked 124th against the pass and not much better against the run.
“Your goal is always to hold the opposing team under a certain amount of yards,” Yates said. “We didn’t reach that the last two years, we didn’t come close to that the last two years.”
Despite those bad numbers in his first two seasons, Yates was the most notable assistant that new coach Kevin Sumlin retained for 2018. That gives him a chance to continue to develop players he helped bring to Arizona, something he feels is necessary to achieve the goals he set when coming to Tucson.
“I gave myself a certain amount of time, when I came here in ‘16, and I kind of looked under the hood and saw what I had,” Yates said. “To me, I said three or four years would be enough to recruit the right kind of guys.”
How the upcoming season goes may determine whether Yates gets to complete that four-year plan.
“I don’t care if it’s Rich Rodriguez or Kevin Sumlin, they don’t want the other team to score,” he said. “That doesn’t change no matter who the head coach is. Under coach Sumlin, he’s real clear as far as what he wants me to do. He just wants me to execute.”
No one is expecting the Wildcats to suddenly become defensive juggernauts—though linebacker Tony Fields II said Thursday he wants them to hold teams to only 13 points per game this fall—but some noticeable improvement is needed.
It helps that most of last year’s starters are back, particularly Fields and fellow linebacker Colin Schooler, both sophomores who were thrown into the fire as true freshmen yet excelled. That’s the position Yates is handling this season after working with the cornerbacks in 2017, and he said his focus to this point has been on the LBs and a much bigger defensive line thanks to the addition of guys like 6-foot-4, 335-pound JUCO transfer PJ Johnson.
“The beef,” Yates said, when asked about what Johnson means to Arizona. “He has that big body, he’s long, he’s strong, he uses his hands well. Having that beef will help us out.”
Yates said being able to stop the run will lead to improvement everywhere else, since nearly every team Arizona is set to face will want to establish a ground game. The Wildcats allowed 32 rushing TDs in 2018.
And the better Arizona is up front, the less pressure it puts on the thinnest part of the defense: cornerback. The loss of incoming freshman Jhevon Hill and sophomore Tony Wallace has made depth a major issue, and though UNLV graduate transfer Tim Hough is on the roster he’s yet to participate in camp while waiting to be formally admitted into his grad program.
“It’ll get there,” Yates said of the cornerback depth. “We’ll be fine.”