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Arizona football notebook: Deep line rotation key to defensive improvement; Dalton Johnson’s determination paying off

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-linebackers-tacklers-defense-dalton-johnson-johnny-nansen-2023 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona has the top two tacklers in the Pac-12 Conference through three games this season, with linebackers Jacob Manu (27) and Justin Flowe (25) outpacing the rest of the league. And while those numbers are indicative of their abilities on the field, UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen wants to make sure credit is given where due.

“When you (have two linebackers) lead the conference in tackles it tells you how big you are up front,” Nansen said. “They’re eating up a lot of double teams. (Manu and Flowe) have understanding of their fits and where their run fits are supposed to be, but the D-line has a lot to do with it.”

Among defensive linemen, the leader tackler is fittingly a 5-way tie. Tyler Manoa, Bill Norton, Isaiah Ward, Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei and Jacob Kongaika each have seven, while Taylor Upshaw’s 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks are tops among the front line. Manu, at 4.0 and 2.5, is Arizona’s leader in both categories.

Through three games, Arizona has used 11 different defensive linemen. Nine of them have logged at least 50 snaps, but none have been on the field more than Upshaw’s 135 out of 193 total defensive snaps. And Nansen actually thinks that’s still too many.

“In my eyes, those are a lot of snaps,” Nansen said. “For him to be very productive rushing the passer we got to limit those, so that’s why we play so many guys.”

It’s a stark contrast from 2022, when Arizona ended up using 13 defensive linemen but edges Hunter Echols and Jalen Harris rarely left the field. And it wasn’t until the second half of the season, when Nansen decided to skew younger, that more rotation occurred across the line.

While it’s common in many sports for teams to try out a lot of guys early in the season before “shortening the bench,” as the saying goes in baseball and basketball. But Nansen plans to maintain his deep rotation, especially early in the game, in order to keep guys fresh late.

“But when we get down to the red zone we have our best D-linemen in there,” he said.

Arizona has allowed only five scores (and just two touchdowns) in nine red zone possessions this season. The overall 55.6 percent score rate is tied for 7th-best in the country, and the 22.2 percent TD rate is third.

Last year opponents scored on 50 of 57 trips inside the UA 20-yard line, finding the end zone 45 times, as the UA was 99th in defensive red zone score rate and second-to-last in TD rate.

Legion of length

Another key to Arizona’s defense so far has been the length at cornerback. Sophomores Ephesians Prysock and Tacario Davis, who have combined for 287 defensive snaps in three games, are both 6-foot-4, while nickel corner Treydan Stukes is 6-2.

UA head coach Jedd Fisch said the desire to have big corners comes from seeing how it worked for one of the best pass defense units in the NFL in the past decade: Seattle’s Legion of Doom.

“We’ve tried a lot to kind of emulate our defensive structure around the Seahawks from, let’s call it 2014 to 2018 era, that time where you had Richard Sherman, you had corners with great length,” he said.

Fisch said his corners’ wingspan makes for great protection against the “go ball,” another name for deep passes down the field.

“It’s challenging to complete deep throws down the field with high arc to it when your 6-foot-4 defender is on top of your receiver,” he said. “That becomes a far greater challenge if you’re coaching on the offensive side of the ball, as we do every day against them. And certainly they’re getting better.”

Opponents appear to have already learned not to try to target receivers covered by Davis and Prysock. The former has allowed only three catches on eight targets, for 38 yards and one touchdown, while Prysock’s assignments have been thrown to nine times and caught four passes for 91 yards.

Together they’re credited with five forced incompletions, according to Pro Football Focus.

Dalton’s determination

Just in case you haven’t seen enough evidence of how much things have changed with Arizona in the past few years, take a look at its 2021 recruiting class. If you don’t remember some (or most of the names on there, you’re not alone).

Of the 18 players signed in that class, most of which did so less than two weeks after Kevin Sumlin was fired and before Fisch was hired, only four remain. One of those is safety Isaiah Taylor, who was one of two prep signees added by Fisch’s staff in February.

Another is safety Dalton Johnson, who has become one of the Wildcats’ most reliable defenders. The redshirt sophomore is one of two players in the secondary to start all three games, is graded the third-best on the team by PFF and his run defense grade (87.0) is tops among Pac-12 players with at least 70 spans against the run.

Not bad for a guy who played almost exclusively on special teams last season and not at all in 2021.

“His football IQ is unbelievable,” Nansen said.

Johnson, the only one of six Texas recruits Arizona signed in 2021, said it took until spring ball in 2022 for him to really feel comfortable in the program. He said the thought of transferring, like so many of his teammates, was in the back of his mind but he was determined to show he belonged.

“I was just moreso determined to kind of have the mentality of put my head down and go to work,” he said. “Just really strive to get what I believe I wanted, but more so that I earned.”