It was a little less than a year ago when Marcel Yates stood before a scrum of reporters, bloggers and cameras and explained that his third season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator would be when you would really see what he could accomplish.
“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 during 2018 training camp. “To me, I said three or four years would be enough to recruit the right kind of guys.”
So what you’re saying is it was really the fourth year, right?
Arizona allowed 32.6 points per game last season, which was an improvement from 34.4 in 2017, but still ranked among the bottom quarter in FBS. The Wildcats were 92nd in total defense, yielding 432 yards per game, up from 119th and 471.2 YPG in ‘17.
“We just need to be consistent,” Yates said Saturday after Arizona’s second practice of 2019 camp. “There are certain games I thought we played well on defense. The Cal game I thought we played well, the BYU game we ended up giving up 28 points, we probably could have given up 21.”
The majority of last year’s starters are back, and there’s more depth in the secondary (particularly at cornerback) than in 2018. The defensive line remains a big question mark, but no more than any other area, Yates said.
“I’m concerned with every position,” he said. “It just comes down to us developing as a defense.”
A key will be ensuring that third down defense is significantly better.
Arizona allowed opponents to convert on 41.1 percent of third downs last season, with 34 of those coming on 3rd-and-7 or longer. So many times the Wildcats would put their foes behind the sticks on early downs only to be unable to get off the field on third, extending drives that would often lead to game-changing scores.
“We’ve really got to be better on third down,” junior linebacker Colin Schooler said. “There are a lot of times last year where (we’d) get them in third and medium, third and long, next thing you know (there’s) another first down and we’re still on the field. ... Our job is to get (our) offense on the field a lot longer than they have been.”
Yates, who earned $560,000 in 2018 and is under contract through this season, said if such things happen again this fall it won’t be because his defensive staff was ill-prepared. That’s because the same coaches who were on that side of the ball last year are all back, with the only change being that Yates is focusing on safeties while assistant John Rushing is handling linebackers after the roles were opposite a year ago.
Compare that to 2018, where Yates was the only defensive assistant retained by Kevin Sumlin from previous coach Rich Rodriguez’s staff.
“This is my first year, if you think about it, with no coaching changes,” Yates said. “In spring I wasn’t putting in a defense or teaching guys the terminology. It felt good to go in the room and now I’m getting ideas from (others). Instead of starting from scratch … now we’re actually moving on to, okay, how can we do better.”