Arizona ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 355.5 yards per game. Three of its four opponents have been held under 400 yards, the most instances in a season for the Wildcats since 2017.
Yet the UA is 0-4 entering its bye. Why?
Because as much as the defense has improved, it still has a lot of room to get better.
“We have to eliminate the explosive plays, especially early in the game,” coach Jedd Fisch said Monday. “They’re never good, explosive plays are never good. They happen, it’s the way the game works, but we need to be able to be a little sharper early.”
Arizona has allowed 49 plays of 10 or more yards this season, which is fourth-best in the Pac-12, but the six plays of 40 or more yards and five of 50-plus are both worst in the league. The Wildcats have yielded three plays of more than 60 yards, equal to the number the rest of the conference has allowed.
A great—or, rather, bad example of this came three plays into Saturday’s 41-19 loss at No. 3 Oregon. Ducks QB Anthony Brown found receiver Jaylon Redd over the middle on a pass that was caught 17 yards past the line of scrimmage but went for a 63-yard touchdown, the result of missed tackles by safeties Gunner Maldonado and Jaydin Young.
Arizona has missed 34 tackles in four games, per Pro Football Focus, with 13 of those charged to UA safeties.
“The missed tackles obviously have been a problem, and especially with my guys,” safeties coach Chuck Cecil said Tuesday. “Having been in the NFL for so long, I mean tackling is kind of like generally accepted. It’s not that the guys don’t want to tackle. It’s sometimes it’s how to go about it.”
Tackling has become less and less a part of practice in football, contributing to the increase in technique deficiencies. That’s no excuse, cornerback Isaiah Rutherford said.
“When we do get the opportunity to tackle, when we do get the opportunity to do those different drills to tackle, just capitalizing on that, just being on top of the fundamentals when we do do it,” he said.
Cecil said Maldonado went for a big hit against Oregon rather than ensuring he wrapped up, and knowing which approach to take is part of the learning process.
“Something that we’ll work on moving forward is that, you know, sometimes there’s times to take the big hit, or make the big hit,” Cecil said. “And then there’s times to just tackle them and get them on the ground. When do you go for the big hit and when do you go for the sure tackle? The biggest thing there is just to go and wrap-tackle the legs. It’s a very it’s a very simple technique and it’s virtually undefeated.”
It doesn’t help that players are well aware of how closely their tackling approach is being watched. Arizona was without two starters for the first half against Oregon because of targeting ejections the week before against NAU, including starting safety Jaxen Turner.
Cecil, who considers himself an expert on the subject—“ I got to play in the NFL because I was good at targeting,” he said—is fully in support of trying to eliminate targeting from college football. At the same time, though, he like many other people wishes there was more nuance to the assessment.
“The bottom line is that you’re trying to protect the kids from themselves as much as anything else,” said Cecil, who may or may not have been exaggerating when he said he suffered 50 to 60 concussions during his playing career. “I get it. I know what targeting is. And what they’re trying to eliminate is targeting, where the defender makes a conscious effort to hit the offensive player in the head. When you watch the film, that’s pretty much 90-some percent of the time, that’s pretty easy to say, oh yeah, he made the choice. He chose to hit him in the head. And that’s what they’re trying to eliminate with the targeting call.
“But there’s some gray area, and there’s a lot of times the officials aren’t sure what targeting really is and what it really isn’t. When a quarterback lowers his head, and goes into a defender and hits the defender in the head, that’s not targeting on the defender. It’s the offensive guy that actually is the one that targeting, but again, it’s a very touchy situation. At the end of the day, they’re doing the right thing because they’re trying to protect the kids, because we all know and understand now, at this point that concussions have long term bad effects. It’s not a good thing. It’s not a good thing for football and it’s not a good thing for the kids.”
Arizona’s other targeting penalty two weeks ago was on defensive lineman Mo Diallo for a helmet-to-helmet hit with the NAU quarterback. Defensive line coach Ricky Hunley said that call “could have gone either way” but if there’s a way to eliminate that judgement call a player should do so.
“If you’re two steps away, hold him up,” he said. “If you’re within one step, go ahead and make the tackle.”