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Defensive Strides at Arizona Crucial to Pac-12 Title Bid

Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez said on Thursday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference call that the uptempo offenses prevalent around the conference has changed the definition of a successful defense.

“It’s hard to be dominant in this day and age with all the great offenses,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez would know; the variations on the hurry-up offense he’s run dating back to his time at Div. II Glenville State helped transform college football.

But even with defenses having an inherent disadvantage, the defense at Arizona in Rodriguez’s debut season was especially bad.

The Wildcats allowed 35.7 points, 206.2 rushing yards and 292.8 passing yards per game, ranking No. 104, No. 107 and No. 121 in the nation respectively.

Long gone were the days of Desert Swarm in the 1990s, when Arizona staked its reputation on stifling defense. In 1993, when Desert Swarm was at its pinnacle, Arizona allowed 30-plus points once. In 2012, the Wildcats gave up at least 36 eight times.

Arizona’s seen progress in each of the last two years under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.

“We got better as far as making key stops,” Rodriguez said of the Wildcats’ 2014 defense, which sliced more than a touchdown off its point-per-game yield, allowed 37 fewer rushing yards and 11 less passing yards per game than the 2012 edition.

Implementing Casteel’s 3-3-5 odd stack formation — designed specifically to slow spread offenses, like the one employed at Arizona — took some time for adjustment.

It also required depth, as Rodriguez explained.

“We want to get to the point where we’re playing more than 13 or 14 guys,” he said. In 2013, Rodriguez estimated former Wildcats linebacker Jake Fischer had games in which he was on the field for 100 snaps.

“We played a little bit more last year, and I think this year, we’re going to get closer to playing 18-to-20 guys. I’d like to get to the point where we’re playing 22, 23 guys an equal number of reps.”

Last season, Arizona had 19 players who recorded 20 more tackles, up from 16 in 2012. But the more important development was how Casteel could use players, adjusting personnel groupings according to situations.

“Being able to do that, not only can you substitute fresh guys, but you can also change up some of your fronts and some of your coverages with different personnel at different times based on who we’re playing and what kind of schemes they run.”

To build that depth, Rodriguez and his staff mined the recruiting trail for some undiscovered gems.

“I don’t know that we can go out there and 5-star recruits every year,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some, but there’s players everywhere…that want to work on their craft and get better every year.”

Sometimes, that’s enough to generate 5-star contribution, even coming from a 2-star prospect.

Linebacker Scooby Wright won the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s top defensive player, after recording 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in his sophomore campaign.

Wright was a lowly recruited prospect coming out of Santa Rosa, California’s Cardinal Newman High School, reflected in his Twitter handle @TwoStarScooby.

SEP 04 2014: Arizona Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright III (33) during a NCAA Division I football game between the Arizona Wildcats and the UTSA Roadrunners in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

Scooby Wright is the perfect example of an under-the-radar recruit who has excelled at Arizona.

Wright enters his third year at Arizona not only as the reigning award-winner for the best defensive player in the nation: He’s also generated his share of Heisman buzz.

Do the Wildcats have any more unknowns, ready to break out in the same fashion as Wright?

“I sure hope so,” Rodriguez said. “A guy like [defensive lineman] Parker Zeller — an unrecruited walk-on; kind of a small, undersized guy (6-foot-1, 247 pounds) — he had a pretty good year for us last year and he’s gotten better.

“We’re also looking for some of the guys that have been in the program for a couple years now that maybe got bigger, stronger and learned the system to contribute a little more,” he added.

Those added pieces may not make Arizona’s defense dominant — the Wildcats face three top 40 scoring offenses just in the Pac-12 South — but they could be the key to getting Arizona a conference championship.

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