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The numbers say Arizona needs to make changes on defense, but Wildcats lack reinforcements on roster

arizona-wildcats-football-defense-pro-football-focus-grades-personnel-jedd-fisch-johnny-nansen-2022 Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s defense is not good. There’s no other way to describe a unit that has struggled for the better part of the 2022 season to this point.

The Wildcats are in the bottom two or three in the Pac-12 in most defensive categories, including total defense (10th), scoring defense (11th) and run defense (11th). No team has allowed a higher rate of red zone touchdowns (76 percent) or plays of 10 or more yards (95) in the conference, and the 49 runs of 10-plus Arizona has yielded is four more than any other team in the country.

According to Pro Football Focus, Arizona’s overall defensive grade through six games (60.6) is 120th out of 131 FBS teams, third-lowest among power-conference teams ahead of only Vanderbilt (58.2) and winless Colorado (35.3).

“We can’t play like this,” coach Jedd Fisch said after the 49-22 loss to No. 12 Oregon, in which Arizona allowed 580 yards of total offense and 306 on the ground. “We can’t be in a situation where we let up 300 yards rushing, and we’re going to fight, scrap and claw to find a way to not do that. It’s going to come down to execution, come down to being more physical, and I expect us to do that.”

Might it also come down to going with some different players on defense? The case can be made for this to happen, in several cases. Problem is, there may not be anyone to take their places.

PFF’s grading system considers any player with a grade of 70 or above to be the caliber of “starter,” with those graded 60-69 as “backups” and those under 60 “replaceable.”

Five of Arizona’s actual starters on defense have season grades below the “replaceable” level:

  • S Christian Young (56.3)
  • CB Treydan Stukes (56.1)
  • CB Gunner Maldonado (52.3)
  • LB Jerry Roberts (43.1)
  • LB Kolbe Cage (33.1)

That accounts for almost 14 percent of Pac-12 players who have logged at least 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps and have grades below 60. Only Colorado (8) and ASU (6) have more main contributors who are considered “replaceable.”

One change appears to already in the works, as freshman Jacob Manu has moved ahead of Cage on the depth chart at Will linebacker. Manu’s overall grade, albeit from only 141 of 399 defensive snaps, is only 46.0 but that’s still far better than that of Cage, a redshirt freshman who is the lowest-graded player in the Pac-12 and lowest of all FBS linebackers with at least 75 snaps.

Stukes, who missed the opener at San Diego State because of a bone bruise in his knee and played only 17 snaps against Mississippi State, is Arizona’s highest-graded tackler (87.3) but has struggled in coverage (57.1). Young, who has started 18 straight games, has been solid in coverage and in pass rush but struggles with the run like so many Wildcat defenders.

Maldonado’s grades playing the Star position—a nickel corner who often ends up defending bigger targets like tight ends and running backs out of the backfield—missed five tackles against Oregon and has been thrown at more than anyone on the team, resulting in him allowing 248 receiving yards and an 85.2 percent completion rate.

And Roberts, while he leads Arizona with 46 tackles, has only 18 solo takedowns compared to 14 missed tackles.

If defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen opts to make any changes to the starting lineup, though, his options appear limited. Especially at linebacker, where only four guys have logged snaps at the position.

Redshirt freshman Ammon Allen has a 64.7 grade over 21 snaps, compared to 63.3 on 47 special teams plays, while Michigan transfer Anthony Solomon has only been used on specials and several other scholarship LBs haven’t seen the field in any capacity. That includes Malik Reed, who started last year’s Territorial Cup, and Dante Smith, who played all 12 games in 2021 and was put on scholarship in the offseason.

There are more options for Nansen in the secondary, with UCLA transfer DJ Warnell topping the list of guys likely to see more action. Warnell had only been used on specials the first four games but helped fill the void for injured safety Jaxen Turner against Colorado and his 73.1 grade on defense is fourth-best on the team.

Warnell spent the spring working at Maldonado’s position and could get a look there. Same goes for Isaiah Rutherford, who started for Stukes in Week 1 and looked solid the first three games before struggling at Cal and then missing the past two weeks with a bone bruise. And Isaiah Taylor had a woeful tackling performance against Oregon but his coverage grade (77.5) is behind only Turner and Christian Roland-Wallace,

The defensive line has already been cycling in a multitude of players, both inside and out, with fairly good results. The interior has been rotating all season, while freshmen Russell Davis II, Jacob Kongaika and Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei keep getting better with more snaps on the edge.