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Arizona football notebook: Wildcat defense may need another specialty package to counter Oregon State’s run-heavy offense

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-defense-packages-johnny-nansen-dalton-johnson-osu-beavers-scout Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona’s base defensive alignment is a 4-2-5, which it has used for the vast majority of snaps over the past two seasons. But from his first game as defensive coordinator, Johnny Nansen has been willing to mix things up in order to counter different offensive styles.

In the 2022 season opener at San Diego State he used a “joker” package that featured five down linemen in an effort to counter the Aztecs’ run game and a mobile quarterback. SDSU averaged just 4.05 yards per carry.

This season saw the “dollar” package—seven defensive backs, with three down lineman and just one linebacker—get used extensively against Washington and USC, two of the most prolific passing teams in the country. It took away UW’s deep shots, with Michael Penix Jr. failing to throw a TD pass for only the second time with the Huskies, then a week later reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams had a then-season low 219 passing yards and only one score through the air.

Last time out, at Washington State, Nansen dipped into the UA archives and brought out a “flex” alignment that was similar to the “Double Eagle Flex” from the Desert Swarm Era.

“We saw a lot 10 personnel, they were running where they pulled the guard and tackle,” Nansen said of Washington State. “We wanted to add a number to (the line), plus their screen name wasn’t one of the big parts.”

Outside linebacker Jeremy Mercier was added as a five defensive lineman, one who would drop back at the snap and serve as a spy on WSU quarterback Cameron Ward. Ward had his worst game with the Cougars and Arizona won in a 44-6 blowout.

“It’s part of our system,” Nansen said of the different packages. “We always have it, but when we play certain teams, that’s when we bring it out.”

Nansen said the key to making those speciality alignments work is by trying them out against the first-team offense in practice, one that is pro-style by design but can play spread, up-tempo or run-heavy.

“That’s the beauty of going against our offense, because some of the things we see (in practice) we don’t see every week (in games),” Nansen said.

Facing Oregon State’s sizable offense

Nansen wouldn’t reveal what kind of packages might be used against No. 11 Oregon State, Arizona’s opponent this weekend, but odds are they’ll be ones with more bodies closer to the line. That’s to counteract a Beavers offense that runs more than 53 percent of the time and goes heavy with multiple tight ends and often a fullback.

“It’s a different offense to prepare for, so it was nice to really kind of focus in on what we need to do as far as defense and what we’re gonna face, because it’s totally different from what we were accustomed to in the last three weeks,” Nansen said.

OSU averages 5.46 yards per carry and 195.1 per game, with reigning Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Damien Martinez tops in the conference with 676 yards through seven games. Martinez is 6-foot and 232 pounds, while backup Deshaun Fenwick is 6-2 and 222.

Both tight ends are 6-4 and 240 pounds, complimenting an offensive line that averages 306 pounds, and that’s all surrounding a 6-foot-4, 252-pound quarterback in DJ Uiagalelei.

Uiagalelei, a former 5-star prospect from Clemson—and cousin of UA defensive lineman Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei—has run for 151 yards and five TDs has thrown for 15 scores.

“I think he fit their scheme better,” Nansen said. “You can tell every week he’s getting better.”

Nansen said this could be a big game for Justin Flowe—“this is his type of game,” he said—but also expecting to play a big role is safety Dalton Johnson. The redshirt sophomore has been Arizona’s most effective run defender, with 23 tackles (and only five missed) on 161 run defense snaps.

“I can see coming downhill more instead of being 20 yards deep as we’d been for the past three games against a heavy pass offense,” he said.

I don’t think it changes much except being more involved in the run game. I can see coming downhill more instead of being 20 yards deep as we’d been for the past three games against a heavy pass offense.

Scout shout-outs

This time a year ago, Jacob Manu was about to make his third start after beginning the season way down on the depth chart. A week later, Wendell Moe started at left guard in his collegiate debut after not being part of the offensive line rotation.

Both forced their ways into the lineup by standing out on scout team, the most underrated part of a college football roster.

Each week, a couple dozen Wildcats don green pinnies (with different numbers) over their regular jerseys, each expected to mimic the position (and, often, playing style) of a player on that week’s opponent. Johnson was a scout teamer during his first season at Arizona, in 2021, and a bit last year, before moving into a starting role this fall, and he credits his time as a scout for his development.

“I think it’s just knowing your role and accepting it,” he said. “And at the same time, you’re going against the one offense, you’re going against one of the best teams in the nation, you might as well take advantage of that and try to get better yourself.”

Asked Monday which scout team players have stood out the most so far, Jedd Fisch listed linebackers Taye Brown, Kamuela Ka’aihue and Leviticus Su’a, wide receiver Malachi Riley, tight ends Tyler Powell and Dorian Thomas and edge Dominic Lolesio.

Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll added praise for Sua on Tuesday, saying he came to the last practice “with a chip on his shoulder.”

Su’a, a 4-star prospect that Arizona signed in February, has yet to see action in a game this season.