Gather ’round, kids, and let me tell you a story of long ago.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the most fearsome defense in college football resided not in Tuscaloosa nor anywhere near the Rust Belt, but in Tucson, Arizona.
Former head coach Dick Tomey’s teams in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s employed a 52-base formation that overwhelmed and intimidated opponents. The 1993 Arizona defense ranks among the best in college football history, holding opposing rushing offenses to just north of 30 yards per game.
For those of you new to the sport, I understand if you’re struggling to grasp this, given the 2015 Arizona defense allowed nearly a touchdown more than 30 points per game, but it’s true. Wildcats defensive tackle Sani Fuimaono knows it.
Fuimaono cited watching those incredible Arizona defenses of the ’90s, nicknamed Desert Swarm, as one motivation that sent him to Tucson out of high school. He called Wildcat legend Tedy Bruschi, a two-time All-American and College Football Hall of Famer, one of his favorite players ever.
He shares a similar fondness for the Desert Swarm defenses with first-year Wildcats coordinator Marcel Yates. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez made the tough choice to part ways with longtime assistant and friend Jeff Casteel this past offseason, and lured Yates away from Boise State, where he oversaw one of the most aggressive defenses in the nation.
Yates talked about the Desert Swarm defenses at length during his introductory press conference, and has visions of restoring such glory to Tucson in his tenure. That won’t happen overnight, though.
Arizona’s move away from a 3-3-5 stack, the favored scheme of Casteel, means a philosophical shift away from speed-over-size.
“We’re not as deep and not as big as we need to be,” Rodriguez said. The depth, he pointed out, is being addressed in recruiting. The size requires an overhaul after Arizona had previously been invested in a speedy look, designed to counter the spread offenses so prevalent in the Pac-12.
It worked relatively well in 2014, too, but rarely does a defense have a single playmaker as vital as the one Arizona had: linebacker Scooby Wright. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American sustained an injury in Week 1 of 2015, which kept him out for most of the campaign until a fittingly stellar farewell in the New Mexico Bowl.
Wright’s injury was the most critical in a series of maladies that rendered the Wildcat defensive depth chart especially shallow. Though the mounting injuries were far from ideal, Fuimaono said they taught returning Wildcats some invaluable lessons.
“Big thing was just sticking together,” he said was the primary takeaway from Arizona’s 2015 struggles. “We have a great group of guys who responded well this offseason, and got after it.”
Part of the response included embracing some schematic changes. Yates also introduced a new approach to practices, which Fuimaono said eased the transition.
“There’s a new, fresh type of energy. Everyone’s been loving it. It’s hard to describe. The coaches love to have fun while we work. Sometimes it’s hard to balance fun and work, but these coaches do a good job of that.”
Rodriguez noticed the same.
“I love the way they’re teaching them,” he said. “The enthusiasm and the effort is really good.”
Enthusiasm and effort are great attributes, but only do so much in action — particularly for a defense as porous as Arizona’s. Part of the more practical measures taken to rebuild the defense included a more rigorous weight routine in order for players to bulk up, particularly on the offensive line.
Fuimaono looked leaner this summer than his playing size in 2015, but actually gained weight in muscle.
Emphasis on employing a deeper bench is another practical effort made to transform the struggling defense of a season ago into something more closely resembling the Arizona defenses of long ago.
Just days before the Wildcats kick off 2016 against a tough BYU squad, the tales of yesteryear invoke memories of Arizona teams past. This current incarnation of a Desert Swarm defense might not be the same as those old sides, but Fuimaono alluded to at least one critical way in which this generation can emulate the past.
“Football’s pretty simple: Go out and make plays,” he said.