The first practice of spring football, particularly under a new coaching staff, is as much about getting comfortable with all the changes as it is about scheming for the season opener more than five months later.
Don’t tell that to Don Brown, though.
“Nobody’s waiting for us. Nobody,” Brown said Tuesday after his first official practice as Arizona’s defensive coordinator. “They’re kicking off, they’ve had their systems in place for a while. Nobody’s gonna say, ‘oh, we’ll wait for Arizona to catch up.’ So we have to catch up. That’s the challenge I’m presented with.”
To that end, Brown said he’s already at a point where he feels comfortable calling 30 or more different plays for his defense, which as was the case at Michigan and several stops before that will be heavy on pressure and aggression. It’s a formula that has worked everywhere he’s been.
Not counting the pandemic-impacted 2020 season—how many Arizona fans would love to do that all around?—Brown’s defenses ranked in the top 12 nationally in yards allowed per game every year from 2014-19, including the No. 1 unit in the country at Boston College in 2015 and Michigan in 2016.
Dubbed “Dr. Blitz” along the way, Brown’s penchant for sending extra guys toward the quarterback resulted in 167 sacks in 58 games at Michigan. Dating back to the Pac-12 South champion team in 2014, Arizona has recorded 166 sacks in 81 games.
The basic philosophy he had back then is the same one as it is now: maximum effort is what starts everything, particularly when it comes to running to the ball.
“Just yesterday I just told them, you know, if you don’t run to the ball, you’re never going to play for me,” he said. “Ever. Ever. And for the first day, I think we ran pretty well to the ball. I saw, you know, obviously a couple of seams open up and then we closed them in a hurry. That’s positive.”
Brown inherits an Arizona defense that allowed 39.8 points and 473 yards per game last season, and during their school-record 12-game losing streak the Wildcats have yielded an average of 476 yards and 40.6 points. The UA returns more than a dozen defenders with starting experience, including redshirt junior Jalen Harris, who will be lining up on the edge again in 2021 after spending last season at outside linebacker.
Harris said he isn’t concerning himself with the differences between Brown’s defense and those of previous coordinators, instead focusing on doing what is asked of him. And he admits there has already been a steep learning curve.
“It was a little tricky the first day, you expect it, but we could take this day and learn from it,” Harris said. “He threw a lot at us, but, if we want to be great, we’ve got to take it and be able to do good with it. We’re gonna watch the film and get better.”
Brown said Arizona’s defense will mostly be in man coverage, but not exclusively.
“In this day and age, with the spread run game and those scenarios, you’ve gotta have the ability to divide your workload,” he said. “It’s a simple numbers game, if they have four blockers, you’ve got five defenders, if they got five, you need six. But you also need to cover the guys, so (man) has to be an element. I’m not saying it has to be it all, because we play several zone concepts as well, but it has to be part of your arsenal.”