There isn’t an official award in college football for most improved defense, but if there was it would have to go to Arizona. The Wildcats are top 40 in scoring, rushing and total defense and top 20 in red zone defense, all categories they were 99th or worst in a year ago.
At least the architect of that turnaround is finally getting some national recognition, as UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen has been nominated for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Good lord, did you see what this guy’s done to the defense?,” UA offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said Tuesday during the weekly media availability for coordinators.
This is the second time Nansen has been nominated for the Broyles, also making the list in 2018 while at USC. He considered it a team recognition rather than one just for his efforts.
“Staff, players, that’s it,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my staff and the players, I don’t know.”
In addition to calling the defensive plays, Nansen also coaches the linebackers. It was his decision to elevate Jacob Manu from the scout team early last season, and Manu has started the last 16 games and his 89 tackles is tied for most in the Pac-12 in 2023.
“He deserves everything that comes to him,” Manu said of Nansen. “The work that he puts in, it doesn’t go unnoticed by the players. You guys are starting to see it on the field.”
Morgan’s second chance
Jordan Morgan was one of about 15 Arizona players who participated in Senior Day pregame festivities last November, ahead of the Territorial Cup. But unlike most of the others, he wasn’t in uniform.
That’s because Morgan was only two weeks removed from a knee injury that ended his 2022 season and also put into doubt his NFL future. The left tackle would end up having surgery on his left knee, and rather than try to embark on his pro career while recovering from an injury he chose to come back for a fifth season at the UA.
A year later, he’s glad he made that decision.
“I don’t regret it one bit,” Morgan said. “I’m finally getting to the place where I can say I’m pretty satisfied with what we’re doing. But at the same time, we still have to keep pushing to get to a further level.”
Morgan said he will again do the Senior Day stuff ahead of Saturday’s home finale against No. 16 Utah. That was also something he never considered skipping.
“This year is really important for me because I get to do it right,” he said.
Morgan has a pass blocking grade of 89.4, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks 15th among FBS offensive linemen. He’s the fifth-best tackle in the country, by pass blocking grade.
Early this season, though, he didn’t look the same. Turns out that was a mental block caused by fear of getting hurt again.
“I was worried about someone falling on it, or stepping wrong again, or having a freak accident again,” he said. “But as I went on the confidence went up with more practices and stuff. These last few games it was more of a mindset to forget about it.”
Morgan has allowed just one quarterback pressure in 110 dropbacks the past three games, and 13 in 384 for the season.
“I feel like in the last couple games, he’s really gotten back in the groove,” Carroll said. “He’s all the way back.”
Late-season defensive reinforcements
Arizona has used 33 different players on defense this season, and at Colorado the Wildcats used 24. They were all in there for meaningful plays, since the outcome wasn’t determined until the final play when Tyler Loop hit the walk-off field goal.
The last defensive snap, a 3rd and 11 in which Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders left the pocket but only gained four yards, it was freshman defensive end Dominic Lolesio who made the tackle that forced the Buffaloes to attempt (and miss) a 44-yard field goal.
Also in on that play was sophomore Sterling Lane II, who had yet to appear in a game this season before Saturday. It was Lolesio’s second game.
“When you look at that critical down, the last play, number 8 (Lane) and 42 (Lolesio) were the ones in there,” Nansen said. “I was happy to see the young guys. The only way they’re going to be great players is by playing.”
Arizona had a similar late-season influx of young defensive talent make an impact last year. Isaiah Ward, who has started eight of 10 games this fall at edge, made his collegiate debut in the 10th game of 2022 and was in late during the Wildcats’ upset win at UCLA.
“They just got out of high school, the lingo and other things is new to them,” Nansen said. “You get to November and it’s really when you measure are they ready to play. We’ve just got to keep developing, that’s what our program is about. It’s about developing these kids, that’s why we recruit high school kids to come in here, and it’s our job to develop them.”
Nansen said other young defenders who have yet to play, or seen little action, could get thrown into the mix this week or at ASU next weekend. Players can appear in up to four games, not including bowls, and still maintain eligibility if they haven’t used a redshirt.