If you have watched Arizona Football over the last decade or so one of the few constants they have seemed to have is a struggling defense.
There have been bright spots, sure, but even at their best no one would have ever considered comparing them to the Desert Swarm days of the 90s.
Many different coordinators have taken a shot at getting Arizona back to that level. Jeff Casteel came to Arizona with Rich Rodriguez and had mild success, but could not sustain and was ultimately replaced by Marcel Yates.
Yates, who arrived from Boise State, was never able to get things going and, after being retained by Kevin Sumlin in 2018 was fired during the 2019 campaign. Arizona legend Chuck Cecil took over on a brief interim basis before giving way to veteran coach Paul Rhoads in 2020.
Now it’s Don Brown’s turn.
Brought in by new coach Jedd Fisch, the man with the nickname of “Dr. Blitz” is expected to bring an aggressive style that from 2014 to 2019 across stints with Boston College and Michigan produced defenses that ranked 11th, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 2nd and 11th in the national rankings.
Hired on January 7, Brown chatted with the media on Thursday and by the time he was done seemed to have all involved ready to suit up and hit somebody.
Let’s take a look at what he said.
How will he get Arizona back to playing dominant defense? By being himself
“The important thing is to stay true to yourself and stay true to your beliefs about this game and that’s what I’m going to do. And the important piece is to make sure that you convey the message to the players, the players understand the message. And then you’ve just got to do a great job of coaching technique and fundamentals and get your guys all on the same page functioning as a unit. That’s the challenge, and probably actually the thing that drives me and keeps me in college football and keeps me going is the challenge to get these guys playing is one.”
One of the questions that has surrounded the hire of the 65-year-old Brown, fair or not, is if he would have the drive to do what it takes to rebuild Arizona’s defense. He has been successful in other stops, but this is different. Can he get the job done without the kind of recruiting classes he was able to put together at Michigan? Or, maybe, will his presence help Arizona’s recruiting on that side of the ball?
Yes, Pac-12 offenses are likely to differ from what he’s coached against in the past.
“Just looking at some of the film. And and seeing what the thought process is with the coordinators, a little bit more open sets, little bit less in the ground and pound type run game, you know with multiple tight ends you know you see a lot more 11-Personnel which is three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back. You know I do see some 12 in short yardage meaning two tight ends, two wide outs. But the bottom line is, I think they whip it around a little bit more out in the Pac-12. So that’s somewhat of an adjustment but in reality, the spread offense is in vogue and it’s in vogue across the country. And each coach is trying to play to his players’ strengths. And just in watching it, I see a lot of throw game that we’re gonna have to be multiple in our coverages, multiple in our fronts and pressures. It’s certainly going to be a challenge for our guys for sure.”
No one will try and tell you the Pac-12 is filled with dominant teams that will make up the bulk of Arizona’s schedule. However, the offenses do tend to play a style that Brown has not had to face too often. While that should not matter — you’d like to think a coach of his caliber can create a defense that is successful against all styles of offense — until Brown can slow the spread the question will persist.
The weather is nicer in Tucson than Ann Arbor but there will be time to enjoy it later
“Well, I haven’t had a chance to see too much yet. We’re working hard on wrapping up recruiting and getting everybody on the same page defensively. And so I haven’t seen too much, but I’ll tell you this, the temperature is nice. I love looking out my window and seeing that mountain range, and just seems like in just my short jaunt back from hotel to office it’s a beautiful area. So really excited to be part of the Tucson area for sure.”
Not much to add here because all of that makes sense. As long as Brown is in Tucson for the football and not the weather things will be just fine.
If the shoe fits, wear it. And if your nickname is “Dr. Blitz,” well, you probably like blitzing
“Well, over the years I’ve probably been 58 to 62 percent pressure on a year-to-year basis. Now each year that changes and you have to change with the times and have the ability to simulate pressure... Some people determine five-man rush is pressure, six-man rush is pressure. But when you bring four but you bring all the loads and do things like that, to the quarterback that can feel like pressure. And I think people group that in with blitzing. But in essence when you count the raw numbers it’s really not.”
That actually makes sense. He does admit to blitzing more often than not, but there can certainly be a case made for creating the illusion of pressure. Constantly blitzing is not necessarily a recipe for success — see Todd Graham’s Arizona State team for evidence — but pressuring the quarterback is a must. If Arizona can do it without needing to blitz that would be great, but it’s clear Brown will have no issue bringing extra defenders.
None of this is to say Brown dislikes the nickname, though.
“But if the shoe fits, wear it. So we’ll wear it and I don’t know if it gives us an edge. All I know is this: I want my guys to play on the balls of the feet not play catch and be on their heels. And we’re going to solve our problems with aggression on the field. Some quarterbacks are different than others. Some offenses are different than others, but we certainly don’t want to be static in our approach and let people get into a comfort zone and play one or two things because they’ve limited your down playing one or two different looks. We’re not going to do that. And we’re going to be aggressive in our approach but I’m going to tell you, the most important thing to play in great defensive football is, A, they run and run to the ball and when they get there they tackle people. And, B, they do it as a group. We will do that. The rest of it is all window dressing. Because if you don’t get that solved, then you don’t have a chance to be a great defensive football team.”
You just love to hear it. For Brown, just saying it seemed to get him fired up.
“Obviously, I gotta calm down here for a minute but that’ll be the message. It doesn’t matter what you play. If you don’t have a number of guys at the ball on a down-to-down basis. And that message will be loud and clear. And the nice thing is we’re multiple. Some people say, ‘coach do you have four-man front, a three-man front?’ We’re all of it. And you know what, we have a simple way to install it with the guys so they can understand. But the impression that the presentation that the offense gets will be multiple. So that’s our approach and I’m kind of excited install it again. So it’s time to get it rolling and get it rolling and get excited about it and I think our kids will play along with it and get excited about it as well.”
You could really sense Brown’s energy and the joy he gets from his style of defense. It will take some time to get everyone comfortable and, also importantly, add players who will excel in it, but it’s tough not to get amped up thinking of what could happen with him leading the way.
Brown has had plenty of success at previous stops, turning struggling defenses into stout units. That experience should serve him well, but he doesn’t concern himself with what happened in the past when trying to change the culture.
“The first thing that my guys will understand when they’re with me is you’re all my players now. Now if you choose not to be, that’s up to you. But the reality is I’m coaching everybody and everybody gets a chance. Now here’s the beauty: When you talk about a clean slate, you got Ricky Hunley, you got Chuck Cecil, you got DeWayne Walker, Keith Dudzinski will join us at some point today, and myself. That’s a whole new virtually defensive staff. So they’re gonna have the opportunity to make their niche.”
After Arizona went winless in five attempts last season and has won just nine games over the past three seasons, a fresh start was necessary. This coaching staff will provide that to the players and while some will not be fans and eventually choose to leave, those who buy in should have their chances to play.
As Brown went on to detail, it’s all about the players’ strengths.
“I also believe this, I don’t worry about what a guy can’t do. So for example, what can a guy do? So for example I look at it in this respect. Guy may not be a good cover guy in terms of understanding zone concepts or being a man defender, but he can rush the passer. Well, you know, I’m a big believer that (he) can play a lot of downs for you, and he can help you.”
Brown brought up one of his former players, Josh Uche, saying he came to Michigan as an unheralded recruit but left as a second-round NFL draft pick.
It’s all about finding out what a player does best and then putting them in position to succeed. That should be music to every defensive player’s ears. All have some talent, otherwise they wouldn’t be with the program, but having a coaching staff that will adjust to them rather than demand it be the other way around will allow for more opportunities. Don’t be surprised if some players we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons look like completely different guys in their new roles.
Brown does not live in the past but he is also not one to pretend it never happened. Arizona has been quite bad defensively over recent years and he knows it. It also doesn’t scare him.
“I don’t think you ignore anything, but it’s how you go about presenting it. ‘These are the reasons you lose.’ Well, I don’t like to utilize that word in my vocabulary. These are the things we did well. These are the things that we have to get better so you have a group of goods and a group of get betters. And that’s the approach.”
As far as we know Arizona has far more get betters than goods. Hopefully this new coaching staff, led by Brown, will help shift the ratio in the other direction. It will probably help that he believes in truly coaching guys up.
“There’s a way to go about it so that you don’t go, ‘here we go again I messed up.’ That’s not the attitude we’re looking for. We’re looking, like I said, live in a present new attack — attention to detail, technique, fundamentals, tackling...”
Brown is a big believer in what a team’s tackling can tell you.
“Go back and watch tape, put the tape on, watch the game, watch the guys tackling, and how many missed tackles. From ‘16 to ‘19 at Michigan, we were the top tackling unit over a four-year period of time. In ‘20, we’re not. Did it have an impact in the win/loss column? Well a lot of things do, but that’s one of them. And I think when you do that you—you take care of your techniques your fundamentals, your presentation of your concepts and you coach the positive, not the negative—good things will happen.”
Improved tackling would be nice.
In all, Brown spoke for about 20 minutes and as you can see, he had a lot to say. This wasn’t everything and if this was an indication of what’s to come, he will be a joy to hear from throughout the season.
Whether or not he’ll be able to succeed where others have failed remains to be seen, but his history suggests it’s possible. With decades of experience as a coach he brings plenty to the table, and his presence is just one of the reasons to be optimistic about the new coaching staff.