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‘Personal itch’ led Paul Rhoads to take Arizona defensive coordinator job

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Iowa State v TCU Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Paul Rhoads coaches his first game as the Arizona Wildcats’ defensive coordinator in 2020, it won’t be the first time he’s roamed the sidelines at Arizona Stadium. He did so only a few months back, as a member of UCLA’s defensive staff when the Bruins were in Tucson in mid-September.

At that point he probably had no idea he’d be switching to the other side of the field so soon. That premonition actually happened 26 years earlier.

“I came here for the first time in the early 90s as a secondary coach at the University of Pacific,” Rhoads said Friday at his introductory press conference. “That night that I was here, (I) experienced the atmosphere, experienced the University of Arizona, experienced the community, I knew this was a place someday that I’d like to have the opportunity to coach.”

Rhoads’ path back to Tucson has been a winding one, as it is for most college coaches. The 52-year-old has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1989, spending most of that time on defense, including coordinator stints at Pittsburgh (2000-07), Auburn (2008) and Arkansas (2017), while from 2009-15 he was head coach at Iowa State.

A defensive backs coach the last two years on Chip Kelly’s UCLA staff, Rhoads said he wasn’t actively looking to become a coordinator again but subconsciously he was hoping that chance would come again.

“I describe it this way: I had a personal itch to coordinate again, and it needed scratching,” he said. “When the opportunities started to present themselves, this was one I was immediately excited about.”

Rhoads replaces Marcel Yates, who was fired Oct. 27 midway through his fourth season. At the time Arizona had lost three in a row, allowing 133 points in those defeats, and ended up dropping its final seven games after a 4-1 start.

The Wildcats finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, total defense and run defense. They were 11th in pass defense, only better than UCLA.

“I couldn’t be happier that Paul Rhoads has decided to join us here as our defensive coordinator,” Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin said, noting Rhoads has “tremendous integrity” and is known for his “tenacity, a defense that’s going to play hard. It’s going to be aligned correctly … and fundamentally sound.”

Added Rhoads: “We’re going to fly around the field and we’re going to play with a fanatical effort that Arizona fans will be proud of.”

The first step is tackling properly, he said.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is tackle great,” he said. “I think tackling is taught. You don’t just teach it, you rep it. Player safety is a high concern for me, so we’re going to teach our kids how to take care of themselves, how to protect themselves but how to get offensive players on the ground. I don’t think, overall, it’s been taught like it was in the past.”

Rhoads wouldn’t commit to a set scheme, saying he needs to better familiarize himself with Arizona’s defensive personnel, though he does expect to also handle the linebackers in addition to his play-calling duties.

“That’s the most connected to both front and back end and most connected to the run and the pass game,” he said.

Rhoads said he and Sumlin had been in touch for a week or so prior to the hire. Having the announcement come Friday likely enabled Rhoads to successfully deliver his last batch of recruits to UCLA, of which several were from Arizona. That includes 4-star Scottsdale linebacker Damian Sellers, who committed to the Bruins on Wednesday.

Arizona was a big part of Rhoads’ recruiting territory with UCLA, and in his visits to the state he said he noticed a lot more talent than in the past.

“I think there’s a lot of players in this state,” he said. “I think there’s probably a fair number of overlooked players in this state. The state is playing better high school football.”

With the defensive coordinator job off the board, Arizona can now turn toward its attention toward filling out the rest of its defensive staff. Cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin was the only position coach who began the 2019 season that was still employed at the end, as Yates handled safeties while linebackers coach John Rushing was let got at the same time as Yates and defensive line coach Iona Uiagelelei was fired in mid-November.

Rhoads said he and Sumlin were planning to discuss later Friday how to fill those vacancies.

“It will be a staff full of great teachers,” Rhoads said.