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Don Brown pleased with Arizona’s defensive progress despite limited numbers, spring practice restrictions

arizona-wildcats-don-brown-defense-spring-football-blitz-pressure-injuries-depth-transfers-2021 Arizona Athletics

Can a doctor really be effective at his job if he can’t do a thorough examination of a patient? What about if you’re known as Dr. Blitz?

Defensive coordinator Don Brown has had 12 spring practices to implement his pressure-heavy attack, and so far it’s going about as well as it possibly could. That’s not to say it’s anywhere close to a finished product, though, not when several likely contributors to that defense have yet to arrive or have been hampered by injuries.

“Our numbers have been really good in terms of getting around the quarterback, and I don’t anticipate that to change,” Brown said Saturday night after Arizona’s second of three scrimmages, this one under the lights inside Arizona Stadium with a few hundreds fans in attendance as well as a squad of cheerleaders and a small contingent of the Pride of Arizona marching band. “It’s very difficult because Coach (Jedd Fisch) wants us to stay away from the quarterback. In a situation like that you’re not going to get much reward, but that’s okay. We’re going through all the mechanics, we’re just kind of whizzing by them. That’s kind of the dilemma of spring ball.”

Brown, who came to Arizona after five years at Michigan, says the combination of no spring ball in 2020 and a COVID-condensed 2020 season—“you had some kind of an, I don’t know what you’d call it, last fall—means everyone is still trying to get back up to speed with playing the game. He had no expectations that would be accomplished during the spring.

“We’re not going to be ready with that until September, that’s just a reality,” he said.

Even if it were doable before the fall, Arizona has so many potential starters or role players on defense that aren’t in action this spring the evaluations are far from over. The vast majority of the scholarship players expected to join the team in June are on the defensive side of the ball, including a pair of linebacker transfers from the Mid-American Conference.

Brown said ex-Western Michigan LB Treshaun Hayward, the 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, can play either of the inside positions, while former Bowling Green LB Jerry Roberts is 237 pounds and is being penciled in at the Sam linebacker, though Brown said “I’m not sure he can’t play Mike and Will too, he’s an athletic guy.”

Fisch had previously said Arizona has one scholarship left to give, and it appears that’s been earmarked for a defensive lineman. Brown said the Wildcats are “still working up front to get ourselves one more guy,” while from the high school ranks Arizona is welcoming six front-seven players.

For now, Kyon Barrs and Trevon Mason are the “leaders in the clubhouse” at the interior D-line positions, with freshman walk-on Ugochukwu Nosike also getting a look. Aaron Blackwell, set to play his seventh season of college football this fall, has not participated in spring practice after undergoing offseason biceps surgery but is expected to be at 100 percent for the preseason.

On the edge, Jalen Harris has solidified himself at one spot while the other could be JB Brown or Paris Shand. Getting the most out of Harris has been a key goal from the coordinator, who says he regularly teases the redshirt junior about his lack of production to this point in his career.

“I go, ‘how many sacks did you have last year?’ He hates it when I do that,” Brown said.

Brown said he’s “really happy” with Christian Young’s development at the Viper position, a hybrid linebacker/safety role, and he’s also high on Malik Hausman’s progress as a potential nickel cornerback alongside Christian Roland-Wallace and Notre Dame transfer Isaiah Rutherford. At safety, Jaxen Turner and walk-on Jaydin Young have been the most impressive, with Young intercepting Gunner Cruz on the first series of Saturday’s scrimmage, while Isaiah Mays figures to have a prominent role despite being unable to take contact during the spring.

“He’s got a red shirt on, he can’t play the ball, so when the ball’s thrown he can’t play the ball,” Brown said. “But at least he’s practicing. In that he’s gaining valuable experience, too.”

Brown said he’d ideally like 17 or 18 guys that he would consider first-team defensive players when factoring in all his different packages.