When Johnny Nansen came to Arizona a little more than a year ago, one of his goals was to play as many guys as possible on the defensive line in order to remain fresh and fierce. That didn’t really start to happen until late in the 2022 season, after the Wildcats committed to playing young and building experience.
A few weeks shy of his second season running the UA defense, Nansen may finally be able to have the rotation he wants. This was evident during Tuesday’s practice, when he was using so many players for the front four spots during some 11-on-11 plays that he was going three deep at each position.
“We’ve got to rotate,” Nansen said. “It’s a long game, especially now in college football, you average anywhere from 85 to 90 and you got to keep those guys fresh. Like I told the guys, if we’re playing (you) more than four snaps (in a row) we’re not doing our job as coaches, especially up front.
Arizona ended up playing 13 defensive linemen last season, seven on the interior and six on the edge, but Hunter Echols and Jalen Harris both played more than 70 percent of the snaps on the outside and Kyon Barrs was on the field for more than 60 percent of plays on the inside. All three of them have moved on, but succeeding them is a long list of contributors who all figure to see regular snaps.
And if that means they mess up from time to time during preseason, that’s okay as long as they learn from those miscues.
“I’m not afraid of guys making mistakes,” Nansen said. “The only way you can learn is by playing, so that’s why you see a lot of those guys are playing. I think guys are starting to get comfortable with the system. I see a lot of communication out there. The guys are understanding exactly where they need to be, assignment-wise. It’s amazing. We’re running to the ball, guys are bought in to what we’re preaching in the meeting rooms and we’re bringing it out to the field.”
Other than sophomore Jacob Manu, who took over a starting linebacker spot midway through 2022, the next most-experienced returner in Arizona’s front seven is Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei, who logged just over 30 percent of defensive snaps. All told, 15 of the Wildcats’ 25 scholarship players in the front seven are new to the team in 2023, either freshmen or transfers.
That includes many who didn’t arrive until the summer, meaning they have to learn the scheme in just a few weeks in order to be up to speed for the Sept. 2 season opener against NAU. That includes former Indiana defensive tackle Sio Nofoagatoto’a and ex-Michigan edge Taylor Upshaw.
Being able to play significantly with such a short window is an uphill battle, but not impossible. Just look at Manu, who wasn’t part of the spring in 2022 but ended up starting the third game of his true freshman season. He said the key to being able to make an impact quickly is to be coachable.
“Take everything in and be flexible,” Manu said. “And take one day at a time. Keep your head down and grind.”
Nansen said that, among those who joined the program in June or later, those in the secondary are the ones who have picked things up the quickest. That’s very encouraging to him considering what is being asked of the defensive backs.
“It’s complicated, when you play zone defense, you got to understand a lot of things,” Nansen said. “A lot of checks. So those are the guys that really stand out to me.”
Nansen also singled out freshman safety Genesis Smith, who was part of spring practice, for being ahead of the curve to the point that he doesn’t consider him a first-year player.
Arizona had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, allowing 36.5 points and 467.7 yards per game. The Wildcats were one of three Pac-12 schools, along with Colorado and Stanford, to allow more than 200 rushing yards per game despite being in a league that featured 10 of the top 50 pass attacks in college football.
Giving up yards is inevitable, Nansen said, considering the offensive firepower in the league. Not giving up big chunks—the UA gave up 30 plays of 30-plus yards a year ago—and taking the ball away are the keys to having a successful defense, raw numbers aside.
“Stop the run run and don’t give up the good plays, create turnovers,” he said. “That’s what you’re measured by now, because yardage, you’re going to give up yardage. So we just got to do a great job of taking away the ball, don’t give up explosive plays, and then stop the run.”