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Arizona’s revamped defense must match BYU’s physicality or ‘it’s gonna be a problem’

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Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats overhauled their front seven this offseason by landing several key players from the transfer portal. Once among the thinnest position groups on the team, new defensive coordinator Don Brown is expecting to rotate seven defensive linemen and six linebackers in Saturday’s season opener against BYU.

He believes that unit can be very effective “as long as we play together.” The Cougars will test that theory right off the bat in Las Vegas.

“They’re coming off an 11-1 season,” said Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch. “They’re tough, they’re physical, they’re always gonna play good, sound fundamental football.”

Always one of the oldest teams in the country, BYU returns three starters on its offensive line, and all five starters are listed at 6-foot-5, 300 pounds or bigger. They pave the way for Tyler Allgeier, a fourth-year sophomore who averaged 7.53 yards per carry a year ago. That ranked fourth nationally among players with at least 100 carries.

With former All-American quarterback Zach Wilson now in the NFL, the Wildcats expect the Cougars to lean even more on their ground game this season.

“If we don’t come out physical, then it’s gonna be a problem,” said defensive end Jalen Harris.

Harris knows that all too well. Arizona has been porous against the run throughout his career. Last season, the Wildcats allowed almost six yards per carry. They are eager to turn the page.

“We can’t wait to hit people and be aggressive,” Harris said. “Coach Brown stresses, ‘solve all your problems with aggression,’ so we’re looking forward to doing that.”

BYU doesn’t have film of Arizona’s new defense, but Brown doesn’t see that as much of an advantage for his unit, which is expected to deploy all kinds of exotic packages. His nickname is Dr. Blitz for a reason.

“There is a certain degree of change that comes every year, but I can assure you this: they know we’re coming over the walls,” Brown said.

If the Wildcats can win the line of scrimmage, they can not only slow down BYU’s running game, but also fluster new QB Jaren Hall, who has not appeared in a game since 2019. That could mean some ballhawking opportunities for an Arizona secondary that Brown says has “legitimate skill.”

“When watching Hall’s snaps, and there’s over 100 of them if you look back over the last few years, he’s an athletic guy, he can throw the ball down the field, he can get out of trouble,” Brown said.

The Cougars are likely to use their tight ends to ward off Arizona’s blitzes—and they have a good one in Isaac Rex—but that’s where new guys like Mo Diallo, a late addition from Central Michigan, come in handy. He’s expected to start on the edge.

“I want to see a tight end block this guy, plain and simple,” Brown said with some swagger. “If you can knock back the tight end, that’s a big deal.”

At the same time, Brown is realistic about the challenge ahead. He knows rebuilding Arizona’s defense isn’t going to happen overnight.

“I’m kind of of the ilk that you got to get into it for a couple of weeks to actually see what you’ve got,” he said. “I’m just hoping we’re cool, calm and collected going into the game and focused on execution and running to the football. If we do those things, we’ll be in good shape.”