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Arizona football notebook: Hunter Echols set to face former team, Wildcat defense trying to counter a run game staple

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-hunter-echols-usc-trojans-counter-josh-donovan-dorian-singer Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When Hunter Echols made the decision to transfer to Arizona for his final season of college football, he knew this week would come. And now that the Wildcats are set to host his old school, USC, the sixth-year senior is trying to treat it like any other game.

“I know how they work, I know how hard we work,” Echols said Tuesday. “I’m excited to go out there and have fun. I feel like there’s no real (extra) emotion. I love some of those guys over there that I’ve been with. That’s where I committed to out of high school and got my college degree. My undergrad degree says USC on it. But I’m blessed to be at the University of Arizona.”

A career reserve with the Trojans, Echols has been arguably Arizona’s most important defensive player this season. He’s started all seven games at defensive end, leading the team with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss while recording the fourth-most tackles (36).

Echols had only 50 tackles in 38 games at USC, and his 388 snaps this fall are already more than he had in any previous season. The opportunity to do that, more than anything, was the driving force in his choice to transfer.

“I wanted to make plays,” he said. “I wanted to be somewhere where I can be the guy, go somewhere where I take 60 reps a game. I’ve never had that happen. No discredit to (USC), it’s kind of hard to play in front of Drake Jackson or Uchenna Nwosu or Christian Rector, all these 5-star guys or guys that are now in the NFL. Ultimately, coming to Arizona was just something I knew would be good for me.”

While many of Arizona’s returning players from 2021 appear to be struggling with first-year defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s system, that’s not the case for Echols. That could be because Nansen was his first position coach at USC, from 2017-19.

Nansen, who moved over to UCLA in 2020 before coming to the UA last December, said Echols has grown a lot since then.

“He was a kid when he first got there,” Nansen said. “He was looking to have a good time and now he’s really calmed down and focused on what needs to be done. I’m happy that he graduated from USC and moved over here. He’s been very productive since he’s been here. And his leadership has been outstanding.”

The Echols/Nansen bond remains strong, with the player saying his coach was “prepping me to be what I am right now” in those early days.

“It’s hard to get young guys to buy in right away as a freshman, and maybe I didn’t buy all the way in,” Echols said. “Now I see that he respects me, seeing that I’ve grown up and I’ve took that step to mature. I respect him. I love him a lot dearly, just as he’s been with me since I was little scrub. Now he’s still with me and still coaching me as hard.”

Practicing the FUNdamentals

On Monday, UA coach Jedd Fisch ran off a long list of things Arizona’s defense worked on during the bye week, including pad level, leverage and play recognition. Nansen echoed those topics Tuesday, all of which fall under the “fundamentals” umbrella that he has referred to each week in response to a poor defensive performance.

Echols confirmed that’s how bye week practices went, but with a caveat.

“I think the practices were more about having fun,” he said. “Playing football is a brutal sport, it’s a very demanding sport, our time, our effort, our energy. The fact that we had a bye week, we were able to work on just being out there having fun knowing that when things go bad, resort back to having fun.”

Arizona is second-to-least in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, total defense and run defense going into a matchup against a 10th-ranked USC squad that averages 40.4 points and 475.3 yards per game. Neither of those figures are in the top two in the conference, though, as the league continues to go through an offensive revolution in which four teams scored 40-plus per game and six are in the top 25 nationally in total offense.

“Defense is a tough thing to do,” Echols said. “It’s hard to stop these guys. These offenses are very complex. There’s a lot of checks. There’s not that (much) stuff you can do on defense, but on offense, I can run a route based off of what he’s doing. I can change my route. There’s so many things that you can do, so many checks, so much stuff that help specific things on offense.

Countering the counter

USC averages 182.1 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in the Pac-12. And like many other teams in the league, its use of a fairly standard play call is contributing to its solid run production: the counter.

“Every year you have a play of the year, and I think this year the play that everybody’s running is a counter,” Nansen said. “I’m seeing that more and more this season in our conference.”

The counter has a wide array of variations, but the two main elements involve one or more offensive linemen pulling and a ball carrier whose initial step is often opposite the direction they end up carrying the ball. The combination of moving parts on the line and misdirection in the backfield can cause defenders to lose gap integrity, something Arizona has had a problem with all season.

Nansen said the key to stopping the counter is pressuring the tackles, which would lead to run lanes getting disrupted.

Opponents are averaging 5.81 yards per carry against Arizona, rising to 5.89 on first down and 6.9 on second down. Lowering those numbers on early downs will force a team to throw on third down more often, and so far this season opponents have converted only 11 of 36 times via the pass on third down.

Trouble is, Arizona has only forced 69 third downs all season, fewest in FBS.

“It’s not (about) stopping every play, it’s get stops,” Echols said. “So we need to get those key stops in the moment. I mean, they might score, but let’s make key stops, get a sack home. Let’s get a pick, and let’s steal a possession. When you watch us play and watch us make sacks and fumbles and TFLs and all that stuff, that’s because we were being technically sound.”

Assessing Singer’s first season

Dorian Singer came to the UA as a walk-on in the summer of 2021, then didn’t appear in the first seven games of that season. But since he’s gotten into action each performance has prompted the same question: why wasn’t he playing before that?

“The first couple of weeks I had an ankle injury, so that kind of set me back from the playbook,” Singer said.

Singer’s college debut came in the second quarter last November at USC, when he had three catches for 65 yards — “they put me in and the first play I was in they threw me the ball.” A week later he started against Cal, and played the rest of the season.

Combined with the seven games this fall, Singer has hauled in 59 catches for 806 yards and two TDs. That yardage total is better than leading receiver Stanley Berryhill III had all of 2021.

During the bye week, Singer was added to the midseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award given to college football’s top pass catcher.

“I didn’t know what the Biletnikoff was until last year, so it definitely added to my list of what I’m all about,” he said.

A potential OL change?

Last season Arizona started seven different offensive linemen and never had the same starting five for more than four consecutive games. So far in 2022 the same quintet—Jordan Morgan, Josh Donovan, Josh Baker, Jonah Savaiinaea and Paiton Fears—have been in there for every first offensive snap, but that streak is in jeopardy.

Donovan suffered a knee injury on a special teams play against Washington, knocking him out of the game, and UA offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said whether the redshirt senior can play (let alone start) will be a game-time decision. If he doesn’t, redshirt junior Sam Langi would make his first start.

Langi and Donovan have split snaps at left guard, with the former playing a season-high 56 against Washington. If Donovan starts, though, it will mark the first time since 2013 that the UA has used the same starting five OLs in eight consecutive games.

As for right tackle, Fears’ job appears safe despite some rough outings of late against Oregon and Washington. He was charged with eight pressures in those two games, notching an abysmal 4.2 pass blocking grade (per Pro Football Focus) against UW.

Carroll said some of those is due to the competition Fears has faced.

“I think the last two weeks he’s gone up against the best group of (pass rushers) that we’ve see all here,” Carroll said. “They’re gonna win sometimes, and we got to do our best to just look at that and not create any problems for the quarterback getting clean pockets. His production is still good, but there’s some glaring issues that show up every once in a while.”