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Arizona’s defense stands out in first full-pad practice

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

A week into preseason training camp, it’s fair to say Arizona’s defense is ahead of the offense.

That edge was on display on Thursday night during the Wildcats’ sixth practice, the first with the entire roster together in full pads. And during the 11-on-11 portions of the workout, Don Brown’s side of the ball stood out in numerous ways.

“I thought we ran our rear ends to the ball tonight,” Brown, Arizona’s defensive coordinator, said afterward. “I didn’t think there was any lack of effort, and that’s always a big piece for me.”

Whether it be goal-line, red-zone or between the 20s, the UA defenders looked much more polished, bearing very little resemblance to the unit that allowed 39.8 points per game last season. The offense scored the majority of the time on goal-line plays, particularly when operating out of a 3-tight end, 2-back (including a fullback) set, yet transfer linebacker Jerry Roberts made multiple big plays in that area while fellow transfer LB Rashie Hodge Jr. had a big sack outside the red zone and both Jalen Harris and Kolbe Cage registered interceptions.

“I thought the guys, as a team, really competed hard, like we’re going to,” Brown said. “You’re gonna make some errors. We run so many personnel grouping on the field, you’re trying to create as much chaos so they get used to it, so by the time we get to the game it’s old hat.”

Brown said he envisions rotating between 17 and 19 defensive players onto the field during a game, several of whom are only involved in specific packages.

“I think really what’s the best part of that is, guys, you can coach them, they can play in the packages, play to their strengths,” he said.

That number is likely to include three or four cornerbacks, position coach DeWayne Walker said. He identified Christian Roland-Wallace and Isaiah Rutherford as the starting corners, with walk-on Treydan Stukes the first sub on the outside while veteran Malik Hausman would be the nickel corner. McKenzie Barnes is also in the mix, he said.

Walker said he can envision big things from Roland-Wallace and Rutherford, but he’s not ready to anoint them as one of the best duos in the Pac-12.

“I just like guys to produce first before predictions,” he said. “I like their skill sets and they’re on the right path. If they produce the way I think they can they should be one of the better corner duos.”

Cage continues to shine

Kolbe Cage was Arizona’s first commit in the 2021 class, coming on board last May, but unlike three other recruits the Wildcats got pledges from out of Louisiana he stayed the course, signing in December. He projects as a safety, but for the time being the 6-foot, 205-pound Cage is spending time at Will linebacker until he bulks up more.

Or, as Brown described it, “he’s a little light in the butt.”

Brown expects Cage to get to between 215 and 225 pounds after having a full offseason to work with Arizona’s strength and conditioning staff, but his skills are too good to keep from being used at the moment.

“He’s a run and hit guy, so we’re going to let him run and hit,” Brown said of Cage, who during the late split-squad workout on Wednesday dominated his running back matchups in 1-on-1 drills, leading to coach Jedd Fisch letting him break down the team after practice.