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Arizona’s porous defense needs more negative-yardage plays: ‘That’s the bottom line’

Arizona v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats’ defense was supposed to take a step forward this year after retaining nine starters and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. But the results have been far worse than expected through two weeks, with no discernible improvement being made.

In fact, the unit is actually worse than it was last season.

The winless Wildcats are allowing 36.5 points per game and 6.2 yards per play, which ranks 95th and 86th in the FBS, respectively. They are also allowing opponents to convert on third downs 43.3 percent of the time, which also ranks 86th in the country.

There is more: Arizona has only generated eight tackles for loss and, wait for it, zero takeaways or sacks. (Keep in mind they had a Pac-12-best 19 interceptions last year.)

“The one thing we need right now is pass rushing,” said reserve lineman Abraham Maiava, the lone defensive player made available to the media this week.

They actually need a lot more, as the only positive for the defense has been the play of sophomore linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler, the latter of whom has four tackles for loss.

Arizona has some glaring problems that cannot be fixed. There is not much depth, and the talent level is below average compared to the rest of the Pac-12. Of course, that is not the coaching staff’s fault, since it was the previous regime that struggled to recruit and develop players.

At the same time, there is no good reason Arizona’s defense should be worse than it was last year. The Wildcats added size up front and are more experienced across the board. And you can’t use the coaching turnover as an excuse since Yates was brought back for a third season, much to the delight of the players.

Sure, Arizona will get players like Jace Whittaker and Scottie Young Jr. back from injury and they can help, but the Wildcats are who they are from a personnel standpoint. As Kevin Sumlin said after the BYU game, you can’t trade players in college football.

So when he was asked if he plans to make any changes to spur some defensive improvement, he challenged his staff to call the right plays or find the right combination of guys to make it happen.

“It gets down to schematics now with players that we know that we have and getting our players in the right position,” Sumlin said. “And the depth issue is one thing, but we’ve got to continue to try manufacture negative yardage plays on defense. That’s the bottom line.”

The Wildcats need to show some semblance of life against Southern Utah this Saturday. They need to sack the quarterback, force a fumble and/or intercept a pass or two — you know, things Pac-12 schools should do against FCS teams.

If they can do that and find a way to get Khalil Tate going (another schematical issue in its own right), perhaps they can build some momentum heading into Pac-12 play and salvage this season. If they can’t, that 2.1-win projection sure seems like a realistic outcome.