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A look at Arizona defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads’ coaching history

Arizona’s new DC has spent almost two decades leading defenses in the Power 5

arizona-wildcats-football-assistant-coaches-hire-sumlin-rhoads-eggen-buh-experience-2020-pac-12 Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats officially have a new man in charge on defense. Paul Rhoads, former Iowa State head coach and defensive coordinator at numerous schools, will take over for the fired Marcel Yates.

Rhoads has a lot of history coaching defenses, and will need every bit of that experience to turn around one of the worst defenses in the Power 5.

Here are some highlights from Rhoads’ previous jobs.

Pittsburgh Panthers DC (2000-07)

Undoubtedly, Rhoads did his best coaching work at his first coordinator gig. Rhoads led the Panthers defense for eight seasons under Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt.

His 2004 defense allowed a fairly stingy 5.1 yards per play en route to a Big East championship and a Fiesta Bowl berth. In 2005, the defense got even better, allowing just 4.9 yards/play. The Panthers had future All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.

After a minor hiccup led to 5.4 opponent yards/play in 2006, Rhoads put together his masterpiece in 2007.

The 2007 Pitt Panthers went only 5-7 overall, but they managed to create one of the best defenses in the country thanks to Rhoads. Without too much talent, the Panthers allowed only 4.3 yards/play and finished 19th in Defensive SP+.

Rhoads’ best game in his career likely was his last game at Pittsburgh. The Panthers went into their rivalry against West Virginia as steep underdogs, as the Mountaineers (under former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez) had one of the most explosive offenses of all time. The Panthers’ defense completely shut them down, allowing only seven points in one of the biggest upsets in a 2007 season full of them, winning 13-9.

Auburn Tigers DC (2008)

After putting together a solid career in the Big East, Rhoads spent one season in the SEC coaching under Tommy Tuberville. The Tigers’ offense turned out to be a huge disappointment in 2008, but Rhoads’ defense proved its worth.

The 2008 Auburn defense allowed 4.8 yards/play, an impressive number even in what was a pretty slow-tempo SEC. The Tigers only really slipped up against defending national champion LSU, No. 23 West Virginia and No. 6 Alabama.

Again, Rhoads’ defense was responsible for a game notorious among hardcore college football fans. In his first SEC games as defensive coordinator, Auburn traveled to Mississippi State and won 3-2. (Yes, that score is correct.)

Iowa State Cyclones HC (2009-2015)

Rhoads spent an entire seven years in charge of one of the biggest programs in his home state of Iowa. His tenure started with promise, but slowly saw diminishing returns.

Even with little to no notable talent on defense in Ames, Rhoads managed to craft four average defenses in his first four seasons. The 2009-2012 Cyclones averaged 5.67 yards/play allowed and a 54th place finish in Defensive SP+. Those numbers don’t seem too impressive until you remember how disadvantaged ISU is in the Big 12 and how offense-friendly that conference is.

After his fourth season, Iowa State’s program took a dive. Rhoads went into the 2013 season with a 24-27 record and three bowl games, and he finished his career at ISU with a 8-28 record and no more bowls in his last three years. His defense also got notably worse, going from 75th to 82nd to 104th in his last three seasons in charge.

Still, at his third straight job, Rhoads played a key part in a famous college football game. This time, it was less Rhoads’ defense and more his whole team. On a Friday night in 2011, the Cyclones stunned the No. 2 Oklahoma State Cowboys 37-31, knocking them out of the BCS Championship Game and ensuring a LSU-Alabama rematch. This result directly led to the creation of the College Football Playoff two years later.

So, even if Rhoads can’t turn around the UA defense, the fans can still thank him for helping fix college football’s postseason.

Arkansas Razorbacks DB Coach (2016), DC (2017)

Rhoads followed up his firing from Iowa State by coaching under Bret Bielema in Bielema’s final two years at Arkansas. Unfortunately, Rhoads’ defenses continued to look nothing like his past units.

Rhoads’ two seasons on the Hogs staff ended with 6.6 yards/play allowed, a terrible number even for a struggling team in a stacked division like the SEC West. Even SP+, which adjusts for opponent, considered the 2017 Arkansas defense to be the 91st best defense in the nation.

Of course, Arkansas has been struggling on the football field for a long time, and Rhoads was given the impossible task of fixing a terrible defense in one year in 2017. Still, his last coordinator job does not look good on a resume, even if it doesn’t completely negate the decade of good defenses he coached beforehand.

UCLA Bruins DB Coach (2018-2019)

Rhoads’ most recent stop was his first job on the West coast since 1994, and while it’s hard to blame him for it, his two most recent defenses might be his worst yet.

Rhoads’ last team, the 2019 UCLA Bruins, had one of the worst defenses in the FBS, allowing 6.5 yards/play, good for eleventh in the Pac-12, below Arizona’s defense. Of course, he was only in charge of the defensive backs, but that picture is even uglier, as the Bruins let opponents average 9.2 yards per completion, last in the conference and 126th of 130 FBS schools.

Of course, this falls more on his defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro than it does on Rhoads. It still means Rhoads hasn’t led a good defense since 2012 and hasn’t led a passable one since 2014.

Overall, Rhoads has a lot of experience leading solid defenses, even if his last truly good unit was almost a decade ago. He’s not exactly an ace recruiter (though he did do pretty well at UCLA) and with Arizona struggling on the recruiting trail, he’ll have to craft a solid unit with talent similar to what he had at Iowa State.

He’s proven he can do it, but he’ll also need help and luck, along with whatever old spark allowed those Rhoads defenses from the last decade to overachieve.