The days of Arizona’s Desert Swarm defense are long gone. For almost the entire century, the Arizona Wildcats have been mediocre on defense, despite producing multiple NFL players. Under Rich Rodriguez and now Kevin Sumlin, the defense has gotten even worse. Previous coordinator Marcel Yates was beloved by his players, but couldn’t get results. Now, new coordinator Paul Rhoads will be in charge of rebuilding the unit.
Rhoads will have a difficult job in the long term, but his situation this year could be far worse. The majority of last season’s major contributors will return in 2020, with most of them being upperclassmen with dozens of games played. The defense managed some solid performances sprinkled in with the multiple terrible games, and if Rhoads can make inroads quickly there is promise for 2020’s unit to be solid.
In order for that to happen, a few seeds will have to be planted in March that could sprout come August. Here are the three most important things Rhoads needs to do in spring.
This task will almost assuredly be Rhoads’ easiest, with so many upperclassman contributors returning. Nevertheless, it’s still important for a platoon built on experience to stay that way.
Of the three levels of the defensive line, none of them will face major changes this season. The defensive line loses Finton Connolly and Justin Belknap, and will have some serious issues with depth, but the top level will consist of multiple transfer defensive tackles and a couple of upperclassmen ends. The linebacking corps will feature three star starters, including the best player on the squad in Colin Schooler. The secondary will lose its best player in Jace Whittaker, along with Tristan Cooper, but three seniors and a couple of promising underclassmen will take their place.
When every level of your defense has three or more seniors with heavy game experience, anything less than a special season is a disappointment. With a new coordinator in a offense-friendly conference, the goal has to be just to be competent. Rhoads should be able to manage that, but only time will tell.
At this introductory press conference, Rhoads claimed that his primary focus could be on teaching fundamentals, particularly tackling, before implementing a scheme. That’s a very promising thing to hear from the man in charge of a struggling defense, but he’ll have a lot of work to do.
During most of Yates’ tenure, Arizona’s defense was able to get on solid footing, forcing third downs at a fairly high clip. Unfortunately, way too many of those third downs resulted in big plays by the offense to keep the drive alive, and the Wildcats were rarely able to slow down any offense with momentum against them. The simplest way to improve third down defense, and defense in general, is of course to improve the tackling of said defense.
If the team focuses on tackling during spring practice, and if Rhoads can make the third down defense look competent, then he will have passed the biggest test of his first year.
Improve the pass rush
Speaking of ways to improve third-down defense, the best way to do it behind sheer reps of tackling is to make the pass rush formidable. If Rhoads can complete those first two steps, then the test of a truly successful first year will be how Arizona’s pass rush performs.
Another thing Rhoads mentioned during his introductory press conference was that he’d prefer to fit his scheme to the strongest personnel, at least in the short-term. Any coach willing to fit talent to scheme is a solid get for a team, but now Rhoads has to prove it. Arizona’s pass rush has been despicably bad since Yates become defensive coordinator, so it’s hard to believe that it can improve much in one offseason.
Of course, if the pass rush can’t improve with so many seniors going after the quarterback, and with recruiting slowing down considerably, Arizona could struggle to rush the backfield for a long time. If Rhoads can manage to make it better this year though, there will at least be some backbone on which to build in the coming years.