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Transfers Justin Flowe, Bill Norton add ‘winning culture’ to Arizona Wildcats defense

justin-flowe-bill-norton-arizona-wildcats-defense-culture Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

During one of Arizona football’s first team runs this spring, coach Jedd Fisch wanted reassurance that the Wildcats’ conditioning was up to par with some of the top programs in the sport.

“Is this like it is at Georgia?” Fisch asked Bill Norton, a defensive lineman transfer from the back-to-back national champion Bulldogs.

Norton told Fisch that Arizona’s training feels a lot like the SEC.

“Sometimes you have to say, now they practiced in pads too, right? And they had long practices, right? And they met a lot, right? And it’s a good little reminder to our guys that we’re not the only team that does that,” Fisch said.

Arizona’s tip-top strength and conditioning, supervised by former Alabama assistant Tyler Owens, reflects the program’s aspirations of competing at a national level. With a revamped defensive personnel, starting with Norton at defensive line and Oregon transfer Justin Flowe at linebacker, the Wildcats feel there’s reason to believe in their potential.

Last season, Arizona made tremendous strides on the offensive side of the ball, improving to 20th nationally in total offensive yards compared to 101st in Fisch’s first season. The defense didn’t make any such leap. Arizona finished second-to-last in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (468) and points allowed (36.5).

To fix the defense, the UA went to the transfer portal and brought in several experienced Power 5 players. In addition to Norton and Flowe, Arizona added Orin Patu, a defensive lineman from Cal, Martell Irby, a defensive back from UCLA, Tyler Manoa, a defensive lineman from UCLA, and Daniel Heimuli, a linebacker from Washington.

Isaiah Taylor, one of Arizona’s top secondary returners, said the newcomers brought with them a successful culture.

“Bringing in guys like Flowe, guys like Bill and Patu, guys that come from winning teams and winning cultures, they know how to win,” said Taylor. “They know how to get that little step. I think our problem right now is we have the talent, we have the physicality, we got everything. Our little thing is the mindset. We got to make that step on mindset.”

Of Arizona’s additions on defense, the guy who attracts the most attention inside the facility is Flowe, and not just being he’s a former 5-star recruit. The 6-foot-2, 225 lb. Chino, Calif. native sees his experience at Arizona as a second chance to make a first impression after not living up to expectations at Oregon.

Fisch said that Flowe’s mantra is “full speed ahead.”

“We’re gonna have to really work through making sure that his passion doesn’t get in the way of his technique and his responsibilities as a player,” Fisch said.

Flowe has taken it upon himself to be the defensive unit’s unofficial hype man.

“Jedd told us that he wants leaders,” Flowe said. “He wants people that want to try to take over the program and try to show a different side of the program that the program has never seen before.

“That’s why he brought me and Bill and all the transfers to change the defense. We do it every day. At practice, we go in the film room, we lift. Just a different energy.”

If anyone in the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility can outmatch Flowe’s energy, it might be 66-year old Duane Akina. A longtime assistant during Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” days, Akina is back with the program after two decades at Texas and Stanford.

Akina joined the Arizona staff in February as a senior defensive analyst and assistant defensive backs coach. He is the fourth active UA coach with ties to the program, joining defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil, defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, and high school relations coordinator Brandon Sanders.

“It’s unbelievable,” Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “He’s very passionate about this place. To hear the stories when he was here, it kind of reminded us of what we’re trying to do here. The values and standards that we believe in it’s very similar to what they had back in the day building the program.”

The revamped culture imported in to the Arizona defense has yet to translate to any measurable on-field gains, which isn’t lost on Nansen. Now in his second year, Nansen believes he’s working with a deeper, more talented defensive front than a year ago.

“First of all, we need stop the run and that starts up front,” Nansen said. “That’s where the starting point is going to be. And then obviously not giving up the big plays.

“Are we putting our team in position to win football games? That’s what it comes down to. Especially in this league, this is an offensive league. We got to do a great job trying to be one of the best defenses in the conference.”