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What we learned about new Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen at his introductory press conference


The day after Arizona’s 2021 season came to an end with a loss at ASU, coach Jedd Fisch met with reporters and listed all the things he was looking for in his next defensive coordinator.

On Friday, he introduced the guy who checked all of those boxes.

“I think that we were able to get exactly who I wanted to get,” Fisch said of Johnny Nansen, whose hiring was formally announced on Wednesday. “I feel like I hit a home run.”

Nansen, 47, comes to the UA from UCLA, where for the past two seasons he was the Bruins’ defensive line coach. Before that he coached at USC (2014-19) and Washington (2009-13).

Here’s what we learned about Arizona’s successor to Don Brown, who left to become head coach at UMass:

This wasn’t Nansen’s first time being considered for a gig at Arizona

Fisch said he spoke with Nansen about a year ago about coming to Arizona and being part of his initial coaching staff, and in 2018 when he interviewed for the UA opening (that eventually went to Kevin Sumlin) he was on his list of potential candidates had he gotten the job. That prior consideration, along with meeting all of Fisch’s criteria for the position, made him the perfect choice this time around.

It was just a matter of getting him to come on board, particularly with the timing of Brown’s departure being confirmed with a week left in the regular season.

“I was focused on finishing our season at UCLA,” Nansen said. “As soon as after the season, Coach reached out, and that’s when we started talking. From there, he told me exactly what he was looking for. And so I said, man, you know what, this is a great opportunity. Let’s go do this thing together.So when Don left that opened up the door to take over, and I’m excited.”

Nansen said the decision was easy because of “the guy right next to me,” turning to look at Fisch on his left.

“His belief in his mission, the big picture,” Nansen said. “He knew what it was gonna take to turn this thing around.”

He expects to compete with USC, UCLA and other Pac-12 powers for recruits

Nansen was named the Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports in 2017, a byproduct of him helping USC put together the No. 4 recruiting class in the country that included four 5-star prospects and eight ranked in the top 100. And at UCLA he helped the Bruins put together a top-35 class in 2021, with their top two signees on the defensive line including Phoenix-area 4-star DL Quintin Somerville, whom he flipped from Michigan last December.

Yet the one past recruit he mentioned Friday was Mike Iupati, whom he lured away from Anaheim to play at Idaho where he became a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy finalist then went on to be a first-round draft pick and play 11 years in the NFL.

“I think it’s a mindset,” Nansen said. “I’m not afraid to compete against those big schools. I think if you have that mindset, I think that makes you an elite recruiter. I think it’s a mentality that you’ve got to have in order for you to become a great recruiter. The relationship that you develop with the kids and their parents is what I really enjoy. And then on top of that is the ability to develop. I think that’s the biggest thing, that they trust in you that you can develop them and take them to where they need to go. My approach is going to be the same way I did at USC. I want to go after the big players, because when it comes down to it, it’s the players. I can sit up here and say, you know what, I got all these great calls. But if you don’t have the players to run those calls it doesn’t matter.”

Nansen said he’s got numerous connections in the Los Angeles area as well as the Pacific Northwest—in addition to coaching at Idaho, Idaho State and Washington he played linebacker at Washington State—as well as Hawaii and elsewhere in Polynesia. He hopes to tap into all those connections, particularly the ones that can help Arizona re-establish a Polynesian pipeline like it had under Dick Tomey.

“I understand how important it is, the Polynesian pipeline here, with George Malauulu, with Joe Salave’a here, and so many other players that came here,” he said. “It’s important to me to continue to build that. But also at the same time you got to take the right kids, the kids that fit into the program and the vision of what Coach has. I’m excited to get started.”

He compares Arizona’s rebuild to the one he was part of at Washington

Nansen’s first gig with a power-conference team was in 2009 with the Huskies, part of a staff put together by Steve Sarkisian to turn around a program that was coming off five consecutive losing seasons including a winless one in 2008.

When he followed Sark to USC in 2014, Washington had qualified for four consecutive bowl games. He believes the same is possible in Tucson.

“Washington it kind of reminded me of this program,” he said. “It took us five years to turn things around. But the thing about it was the energy that we brought to the place, the belief that kids had in us as coaches. We started off there at 5-7, they didn’t win a game before we got there. Second year we went to a bowl game, they hadn’t been in a bowl game in 10 years. When we left there we were 9-4. And that was a big accomplishment for the program there, and I’m hoping that we could bring that attitude to Arizona.”

More recently, Nansen joined UCLA when it was coming off a 4-8 season. After going 3-3 during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign the Bruins are 8-4 this fall and won six Pac-12 games for the first time since 2014.

His time coaching offense made him a better defensive coach

UCLA led the Pac-12 in run defense this season, allowing 124.3 yards per game, and in Nansen’s first season as assistant head coach/linebackers coach at USC in 2016 the Trojans were third in the league in total defense.

The year before that, however, he was coaching USC’s running backs while also running special teams, the same roles he held in his last two years at Washington. From 2003-11 to coached exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, along with special teams, but it wasn’t until after he switched sides that he believes he figured it all out.

“I made a decision to move to offense because I thought it’ll make me a better coach,” he said. “When you move on that side of the ball, and the way you teach the game, is totally different now. Because I understand how offensive coaches are thinking, I understand how they prepare. That, to me, was something I really wanted to study. And it made me a better coach once I moved (back) over to defense.”

Fisch, whose first NFL job was as a defensive quality control coach with the Houston Texans, said former boss and current mentor Bill Belichick told him how important it was to find coaches who have worked on both sides.

“When you learn the other side of the ball, it is a huge benefit when you’re game planning and when you’re talking to your players,” he said. “So the idea of being able to hire somebody that, A is an elite recruiter that understands talent, acquisition and development, and then B, somebody that understands both sides of the ball and has been able to do it at a high level … that’s what we were looking for, and that’s why I was so fortunate to be able to land Coach Nansen here.”

He plans to be even more aggressive than Brown, AKA ‘Dr. Blitz’

Jerry Azzinaro called UCLA’s defensive plays this season, but Nansen was heavily involved in the planning process. So take that into consideration when looking at the Bruins ranking second in the Pac-12 in sacks, tied for second (with Arizona) in tackles for loss and second in both fumbles forced and recovered.

“My belief is everything starts with football,” Nansen said. “Everything that we do is to attack the football, every call is to attack football. If you win the turnover battle, I think you’ll win the game. Your chance to win a game is pretty damn high.”

Nansen also emphasized the need to stop the run—the UA finished 10th in the Pac-12 in rush defense—and tackling well.

As for a scheme, Nansen is going to use the same 4-3 alignment Arizona went with under Brown, and on the back side he’ll use a mix of Cover 3, Cover 2 and Man Free. And there will be lots of pressure.

“Very similar to what Don was doing a little bit,” he said. “I like to pressure a little bit more. And just make sure our guys play hard. When you turn on the tape I want you to say three things. One, we’re tough. Two, they’re a physical bunch of guys. And three, we play fast, because our scheme is going to allow our guys to play fast. It’s a fun brand.”

He has personal experience with Arizona’s Desert Swarm era

Nansen played for WSU from 1992-96, during which the Cougars had one of the best defenses in the country under coach Mike Price. But so did Arizona under Tomey, and the five games they played during Nansen’s career featured only 173 points, including scores of 9-6 Wazzu in 1993 and 10-7 Arizona in 1994.

“Really there were two defenses in the league at that time, one was the Palouse Posse, and one was the Desert Swarm,” he said. “It was exciting playing and watching, because when these guys played, they were nasty and physical. And they had fun playing. And that’s my vision in this place here. We could do that here. I want to be able to bring that back. But it’s gonna take time, we’re gonna have to go out and recruit. But it was just a joy to watch those guys. It was a great group of guys, that you could tell they gelled together and they loved one another and they played their tails off. And that’s what I want to make sure I bring here.”