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Arizona’s defense entering ASU game still adapting to latest coaching change

Northern Arizona v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have had a remarkably consistent defense this season, at least from a personnel standpoint. The 11 starting spots have been occupied by just 16 players, with 22 players appearing in at least nine games.

Yet the same hasn’t been the case for the defensive coaching staff, which heads into Saturday’s finale against ASU with only one of the four assistants that were on staff at the beginning of the season.

Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing were fired in late October, and last Thursday it was announced that defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei had been let go.

Only cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin remains in the same role he had back in training camp. The other spots have been filled by analysts, with Chuck Cecil taking over coordinator duties, Hank Hobson handling linebackers and now Greg Patrick being tasked with coaching the D-line.

“It sucks,” said senior defensive tackle Finton Connolly, who learned of the change via text from Uiagelelei. “I appreciate everything Iona has done for me. But as a player you’ve got to adapt to whatever coach comes in.”

The defensive line was a major question mark for Arizona entering the fall. The interior has shown improvement thanks to the arrival of junior college transfers Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa, but the development of edge-rushers like JB Brown and Jalen Harris hasn’t happened as hoped.

“It was tough because he was a good guy, we all liked him,” Harris said. “But it’s a business.”

Mason, who has started the last nine games for Arizona, considered Uiagelelei like a father.

“I won’t lie, it hurt me,” Mason said. “It hurt but I had to fight through it.”

Patrick, who was an analyst at Texas A&M in Kevin Sumlin’s final year at that school in 2017, previously served as defensive coordinator at Mesquite High School in Gilbert according to his LinkedIn page.

“He’s a really informational guy,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mykee Irving said of Patrick, whom the players call G-Fresh. “He’s a really hands-on coach. We’re just trying to pick his brain and learn as much as we can before the ASU game.”

Getting a new coach in midseason is just one of many changes Irving has had to go through since the spring. After redshirting in 2018, Irving was switched to offensive line during spring practice only to move back to defense in the summer. Then a left knee injury limited him in camp and into the season, keeping him off the field until appearing in the last five games.

“It’s kind of weird, but our whole D-line and defense has done a good job adapting to the change and just working,” Irving said.

Despite the staff changes, Arizona has kept its same scheme on defense all season. The exception might have been last week when, facing Utah’s sizable offensive front, went more with bigger linemen and kept the smaller Brown and Harris off the field most of the night.

A more traditional mix of tackles and ends is likely for Arizona in the trenches against ASU, which is last in the Pac-12 in yards per carry but is in the upper half in passing offense.