Paul Rhoads has been the Arizona Wildcats’ defensive coordinator since late December, when Kevin Sumlin hired the veteran coach to replace Marcel Yates and tasked him with fixing a unit that was at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in almost every statistical category last season.
On Thursday, after Arizona’s third spring practice, Rhoads met with the media to discuss what he thinks of the returners he inherited and how he expects to integrate a new defensive scheme for the 2020 season.
On how he’d assess the defense so far: “Three practices in and I’d probably say, most accurately, that I’m not dissatisfied. I don’t think you’re ever satisfied, ever. One of the worst things you could be as a coach and a player is frustrated. The kids have been practicing with great energy, they’ve been very coachable on the field and in the media room.”
On how long he thinks it will take to get everyone on the same page: “Certainly something that you can’t put a time stamp on. If it happens it happens. I see Colin (Schooler) walk in the door and I can tell you he’s extremely comfortable with everything, and then there’s other guys who are a long way behind him. We’ve got to be a long ways from where we are now (for the Spring Game) on April 4.”
On the defensive depth: “What depth? We’re pretty thin. But that’s okay. We will develop that, we’ll add this class in the summer, in August, and get to integrating them. I don’t think that we look at this class and say, you know, these five guys have to play. But the group will be given an opportunity. We don’t have the numbers that we need to say that we’ve got great depth.”
On going heavy with defensive linemen in the late signing period: “Extremely important. And not just numbers, we added size. We added the frames and the body types that we were looking for. And obviously we had to go national to do that. That’s okay. I think this program has always been a little bit of a melting pot, anyway. I’ve got no problem with that.”
On being short one defensive assistant after secondary coach Demetrice Martin left for Colorado: “It has an effect. But I don’t think we’ve balked or flinched at the transition. Fortunately, I’ve got a few years’ experience in the back end so I’ve been able to step up in that regard. Pierre Cormier, our graduate assistant, is doing an exceptional job with those kids. There’s veteran players back there, so they understand the importance of the work that must take place. Because of transition, everything’s new to them anyway, so it’s not like they’re falling behind because a coach isn’t there. You notice that you’re short but it hasn’t hurt our progress.”
On what he’s hoping to see during the spring: “One, make sure we’re playing hard. If you’re not playing hard you’ve got no chance. There’s a difference between playing hard and playing fast. Right now we’re just playing hard. We want to understand the importance of tackling, that’s the most important thing a defensive player does and a defensive unit does. There’s a lot of teaching taking place on the field and in the meeting room.”
On teaching proper tackling: “I don’t think tackling is taught as well today as it was years ago. We’re working hard at teaching fundamentals and understanding them when it comes to tackling. Today was the first day of pads. When they applied those fundamentals and techniques they tackled well, even though we didn’t go to the ground. When they didn’t, they tackled poorly.”
On why he believes tackling isn’t taught the same nowadays: “Because I think there’s more emphasis on other pieces of the game. Scheme, technique, turnovers. Tackling is never going to go away.”
On if he’s watched much film of the 2019 defense in action: “I spent less time doing that than anything else. With a completely new staff, with [Coach Demetrice Martin] gone, there’s a whole room that’s gotta get on the same page. In my opinion it would be a waste of time to go back. We’re learning what they’re capable of, both mentally and physically, and we’re learning a lot more that way than we’d ever learn on film.”
On the senior linebackers: “They’re experienced, they’re veteran players. Colin is extremely intelligent, he’s a quick study and that’s extremely important in that position. Anthony (Pandy) and Tony (Fields II) play with great speed and energy and that rubs off on other teammates in how you practice. They do what we ask them to do with a high level of skill.”
On why he runs a 3-4: “I gravitated towards it in 2015, our last year at Iowa State, and that’s what I’ve been around except for one year, 2016, at Arkansas. I think it gives you an opportunity to recruit to it, I think it gives you an opportunity to play in space. It certainly won’t be the front we’re in at all times and through all those situations.”
On if he had input in hiring defensive line coach Stan Eggen and outside linebackers coach Andy Buh: “It was something that Kevin and I arrived at together. Stan was an important hire to us because of his exceptional experience and resume and background, plus a knowledge of me. When you know what you’ve got, that’s valuable. And he brings tremendous experience in all things that we’re doing, plus he brings the experience as a position coach and as a coordinator.”
On how much of a turnaround he’s hoping to achieve in 2020: “Our goal is to play hard. Our goal is to tackle great. Our goal is to not give up big plays. And when you start doing those things then the number of points you give up starts shrinking, which is the most important stat. And that’s what we’ll set out to accomplish, if we can accomplish those things and lower the points we give up we’ve got a chance to improve.”