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April 13, 2013
Defensive depth Arizona's most critical offseason concern
Year 1 of the Rich Rodriguez era at Arizona exceeded plenty of expectations. The 2012 Wildcats reached the program watermark for wins in a season since 1998. UA employed an exciting offense ranked among the best in the nation, and is sending quarterback Matt Scott to the NFL.
And yet, there's a nagging concern permeating from the 2012 campaign that lingers into 2013. The conclusion of practice season with Saturday's spring game should address some of the concern.
"We wanted to develop depth and I think we did that," linebacker Jake Fischer told reporters following Thursday's practice. "We still have some young guys filling in spots who need to learn what they're doing. It's all a process but from beginning to end, we did improve."
Any improvement is movement in the right direction. The defense finished No. 11 in the Pac-12 Conference with 35.3 points per game allowed.
California and Washington State - teams with a combined 6-18 record - gave up fewer points than UA. Only a dreadful Colorado defense that gave up 50 points or more on five occasions was worse - and the Buffaloes were dead last among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
There's something of a déjà vu to the Wildcats' porous defensive performance. Rodriguez's final Michigan team ranked near the bottom nationally in scoring defense. Coordinator Greg Robinson never seemed to fully grasp the nuance of the 3-3-5 odd stack formation.
However, the circumstances behind UA's struggles were unique. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is the 3-3-5 defense. And in certain phases, the 3-3-5 was a resounding success.
Last season, the Wildcats brought far more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than the 2011 defense, in turn jumping from No. 101 to No. 25 in turnovers forced.
UA's defensive deficiencies were not for lack of effort. Fischer was among the nation's most productive individual tacklers, and he had support from the hard-hitting Marquis Flowers.
Rodriguez, long a champion of giving opportunities to walk-ons, afforded Jared Tevis such an opportunity. The Tucson Canyon Del Oro product made good with 82 tackles and four forced fumbles. The latter ranked him No. 8 among all FBS players.
Tevis sees progress, per his assessment earlier this week.
"I'll give [the defense] a B+," he said, but added there's room for further growth. "We're doing well and we have days with high intensity but we can still get to another level."
Reaching that next level requires reinforcements.
Tevis and Fischer return, along with cornerback Jonathan McKnight and rapidly improving lineman Tevin Hood. McKnight and Flowers, as well as cornerback Shaquille Richardson, spent this time rehabilitating injuries, which may not be a bad thing in the long run.
Their progression is perhaps of less consequence than the development of the reserves.
Last season's defense had a staggering lack of depth. Misfortunes like the transfer of Cortez Johnson to Oklahoma, the injury of Adam Hall and the retirement of Brian Wagner left the Wildcats paper thin.
There's no coincidence Arizona gave up 260 points at the end of halves, compared to 193 at the start. A fresh first string was productive, but fatigue was its undoing.
The breakneck speed at which Rodriguez's offensive philosophy is enacted requires the defense to play at the same pace. The ability to cycle in players without sacrificing production is critical.
Recruits from Rodriguez's initial signing class move into more prominent roles. C.J. Dozier and Dakota Conwell were immediate impact players out of necessity, and could take on further responsibility in 2013.
Casteel also gets support from the offensive end with the conversion of Richard Morrison to cornerback, from wide receiver.
Morrison's progress on defense is among the more interesting sub-plots of the offseason. He's already donned numerous hats, returning kicks last season and working out at quarterback last spring.
"It's a little bit harder than offense but once you get it, you get it," Morrison told reporters last week. "It's like playing quarterback to me. You have to watch everything on the field. I think being a quarterback my whole life and playing wide receiver here, it's helped me transition to defense. It's like second nature now."