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Arizona’s offense benefitting from facing Don Brown’s exotic defense in practice

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Arizona Spring Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

New Arizona defensive coordinator Don Brown is known for crafting exotic blitz packages that leave offenses dazed and confused. And as he has been installing them during preseason practice, it’s given the UA offense a chance to identify one of its weaknesses—communication.

“All the different looks we get, we’ve got to talk,” said offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll. “The offensive line, we’ve got to communicate to the running backs, sometimes to the quarterback, just to let them know where we’re going. ‘Hey we’re blocking these guys, we’re not blocking that guy.’ It makes you work. Just taking a glimpse of the preseason games, you’re gonna get a lot of basic defenses in the NFL. The calls are pretty simple. We’re getting a lot of work right now. I love every bit about going against Coach Brown. We’re lucky.”

The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line—one reason there is hope that a unit that struggled last season is due for improvement—but even they are prone to communication errors.

“Sometimes when the young guys get in there, even when the older guys get in, they go silent,” Carroll said.

The good news is that the looks Arizona’s offense is getting in practice might be more difficult to adjust to than anything they’ll see during the regular season.

When asked if their opponents will be able to top the amount of pressure Brown’s defense is putting on Arizona’s offense so far, Carroll said, “probably not.”

“Don can bring it pretty good,” Carroll said. “I’ve done some preliminary studies of the opponents were facing and they bring some good stuff too, so we’re excited about what Don is getting us ready for.”

Sunday scrimmage on deck

The Wildcats will scrimmage at Arizona Stadium at 7:30 p.m. MST on Sunday. The event will be open to the public. It will be a good opportunity for fans to get their first glimpse at the 2021 team in a game-like setting, and also for the coaches to see how players react to pressure situations.

Perhaps no position could use it more right now than the quarterbacks. A frustrated Jedd Fisch said Friday that Gunner Cruz, Will Plummer and Jordan McCloud have yet to separate, adding the trio needs to make more plays and limit mistakes. Carroll took a more optimistic stance on the QBs, calling the competition a “full-sprinted tie” when a reporter referred to it as a “flat-footed tie.”

He’s anxious to see how they fare Sunday.

“Yeah, whenever we raise the degree of difficulty on the quarterbacks, it means a little bit more, as opposed to when you’re going routes on air,” Carroll said. “There’s no doubt there’s a difference. So we’re going to have more of those situations coming up and we’ll see who sticks out.”

Carroll said the Wildcats are past the installation phase of the offense and have moved on to the competition phase in practice.

“It’s why you see more play-out situations, not just it’s first down every route,” he said. “We’re in the huddle, it’s first down, second down, we’re going to third down. Did you get the first down? Are you in third and long? We want to see all those guys handle those situations and see how they compete.”

Hand and Burrola standing out on the O-line

Yes, Arizona’s first string offensive line is the same as it was last year, starting from left to right with Jordan Morgan, Donovan Laie, Josh McCauley, Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears. Laie said the new scheme is more physical than the old one.

“It gives me opportunities to hit the person in front of me, so it’s more fun,” Laie said.

Two backups that have caught Carroll’s eye are Edgar Burrola and JT Hand. Neither was with the team last season. Burrola, a junior, opted out for COVID purposes. Hand is a true freshman who joined the team in the spring.

“He’s done great playing multiple spots—guard and tackle—and can play left and right,” Carroll said of Burrola. “Really excited about what he’s done. He’s another guy with Coach (Tyler) Owens in the weight room who’s changed his body. He sat out so he didn’t have the same weight room situation as everyone else, so he fell off a little bit, but he’s done a great job on his comeback.”

Carroll said of Hand: “He’s done a really fine job coming in January. It’s a difficult situation to come in at that time and try to make the transition from high school. True freshman that looks like he’s ready to play and compete.”

Linebacker Rashie Hodge Jr. standing out defensively

Fisch said Friday that the New Mexico State transfer’s name has been circulating around the building more than anyone else’s recently. Fisch said that’s because Hodge is “fast and explosive.”

Hodge has not only made plays around the line of scrimmage, but in coverage too.

“He’s showing up, he’s working his tail off and showed up here and said, ‘Coach I just want to be a part of this team,’” Fisch said. “And you watch him every day, and you watch his excitement, his energy, how quickly he hits, it’s pretty impressive how he hits the hole and I think he’s gonna be a big benefit to have on our team.”

Hodge had 90 tackles as a junior in 2019, including a team-high 10 for loss. He did not play in 2020 because the Aggies sat out the season due to COVID-19.