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Arizona football notebook: Johnny Nansen trying to ‘simple down’ defense, change some starting spots

arizona-wildcats-notebook-defense-johnny-nansen-jacob-manu-dj-warnell-gunner-maldonado-kolbe-cage Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even though the disappointing defensive performances keep piling up, Johnny Nansen is sticking with the same message. But maybe with a few less words.

“We need to try to simple things down,” Arizona’s defensive coordinator said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of moving parts during the game. As a coach, you got to put them in (good) position, so I got to do a better job. Make sure they understand where their fit’s going to be. And then overall what are you going to face in the game.”

Nansen said Oregon’s constant motioning and shifting before the snap, as well as the presence of a mobile quarterback, contributed heavily to the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) allowing 580 yards overall and 306 on the ground in the 49-22 home loss.

They won’t be seeing another run-heavy QB this week like Bo Nix, who had 70 yards and three touchdowns, but Nansen said Washington (4-2, 1-2) does do a lot of the same pre-snap things the Ducks did that caused Arizona problems.

“Once they go in motion, because you got a lot of receivers that are coming across in motion, and then when they go across it’s totally a different fit and where (our) eyes are at,” Nansen said. “So that’s the challenge we’re having, and I don’t want to sit in one defense, so now they’re playing into their hands. I’m trying to help the kids.”

Nansen said Arizona was prepared to stop Oregon’s run, as it did on the first drive and the first few plays of the second possession, limiting the Ducks to 19 yards on their first five carries.

“Once they noticed that they went to an unbalanced formation, where it kind of limits what you’re doing,” Nansen said. “And then they went to empty, which is a totally different game now. You’re in space now, with the screen game. Those are the things that we need to clean up this week.”

Washington has the top passing offense in the conference, averaging 357.3 yards per game, but screens aren’t a big part of it. Michael Penix has only attempted 44 screen passes on 250 dropbacks and his average depth of target (9.8 yards per throw) is highest of any Pac-12 passer who has started every game.

Defensive changes afoot

Freshman linebacker Jacob Manu is listed as the first-team Will linebacker on the latest depth chart, putting him in line to make his second career start. Redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage started the first six games, but his Pro Football Focus grade (33.4) is lowest among FBS linebackers with at least 75 snaps.

Cage will still play, Nansen said, but he figures to get closer to the 21 snaps Manu had against Oregon while Cage played 47 as the starter.

Manu is generously listed on the roster as 5-foot-11, but Nansen said he’s not concerned about a player’s size if the skills are there.

“It’s guys having a knack for football, can they tackle. can they read, can they drop in zone coverage, can they man coverage?,” Nansen said. “Where are their eyes at? He can do that naturally.”

Manu was part of Arizona’s defensive scout team in preseason and early in the fall, but that didn’t last long.

“He was drilling our linemen, who were giving up 100 pounds,” offensive coordinator/OL coach Brennan Carroll said. “He’s a stud.”

All signs point to another change among the starters, as Nansen said sophomore DJ Warnell has been moved to the Star position after playing safety in parts of the last two games. The UCLA transfer was in that role, which is a nickel corner spot occupied to this point by Gunner Maldonado.

Maldonado is listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds while Warnell is 6-3 and 200 pounds, making him the right size for what Nansen is looking for at the Star, which he describes as “a cover guy, a safety body that can be in a box to help out with the runs.

“In college football now these days everything is wide open, so you got to have people in space that play coverage and fit the run.

Maldonado has Arizona’s lowest tackling grade (23.9) among main defenders, while Warnell is at 81.7 in his limited snaps. Warnell also has Arizona’s fifth-best coverage and fourth-best run defense grades.

As for any other moves in the near future, don’t expect Anthony Solomon or Malik Reed to be in the mix. Asked about those linebackers, both of whom were competing for starting spots in the spring, Nansen intimated that they aren’t being considered based on their knowledge of the defense.

“I got to make sure they understand the assignments and things like that,” he said. “The best guys are gonna play in this program. We can’t just put guys in there. They got to earn their spots.”

Solomon, a Michigan transfer, has only played on special teams this season, while Reed hasn’t been on the field at all after appearing in six games in 2021 including a start in the Territorial Cup.