Arizona Football Defensive Preview
How's Arizona's defense? Well, I guess they're alright.
I am going to be honest with you: this is probably not going to be my most exciting article. This is a defense devoid of any real stars to highlight, but they’re not a bad defense. They’re not a particularly great one either, at least not so far. They’re just… middle of the road. Average. Okay. Decent.
Arizona’s base defense is a 4-2-5, similar to Notre Dame’s defense last week (schematically, at least; Arizona doesn’t have a bunch of early round NFL Draft picks on the defensive line). They have a stand-up edge rusher called the “Kat” (what Notre Dame called the “Vyper”) and a hybrid linebacker/safety called the “Star” (what Notre Dame called the “Rover”, and what 2021 Arizona called the “Viper”). This came about as Jedd Fisch hired former UCLA defensive line coach Johnny Nansen to be his new defensive coordinator, after excessive blitz-loving former DC Don Brown was hired to be the head coach of UMass.
Arizona is probably a bit above average against the pass, and a bit below average against the run. UC Davis managed to generate pressure against Cal’s offensive line, so that might not mean a whole lot, but at least the groundskeepers at Memorial Stadium won’t have to buff out a bunch of Jack Plummer-sized holes in the turf Sunday the way they did at Notre Dame.
So without further adieu, let’s take a look at the unit that will only leave moderately-sized Plummer imprints on the turf this Saturday. (Side note: I think a “moderately-sized Plummer” is actually referred to as a “Will Plummer,” but something has gone terribly wrong on the Arizona sideline if we start seeing those, as Will had shoulder surgery during the preseason).
Lost amongst all the news of Lincoln Riley plundering Pac-12 teams and recruiting other
expensive highly-sought transfers: what happened to the old USC starters? One such story is that of former USC outside linebacker (and 4-star defensive end) Hunter Echols, who found himself perfectly suited to Arizona’s “Kat” position, and is the new starter of Arizona’s hybrid DE/OLB position. He’s already making an impact as Arizona’s current sack leader:
I wasn’t super high on Echols at USC—he logged exactly zero sacks in 11 games over the course of 376 snaps (per PFF) last year—so the fact he’s already generating sacks and forced fumbles this year for Arizona is a sign that his struggles could probably be attributed to the poor coaching he received at USC, and also demonstrates just how badly USC needs to re-hire Clay Helton.
Come back, Clay. We miss you.
On the other end of the line is a defensive end I thought would be having a much bigger impact this season, Jalen Harris. Harris a 6’6'“ 275 lbs. defensive end who plays with a high motor, but probably lacks the elite speed you’d like to see in a player trying to make it to the next level.
Still, Harris is a big guy with some quickness. I had to reach into last year’s clips for this one as he’s had a quiet season so far, but who doesn’t love seeing a USC quarterback get hit:
In addition to Echols, another player making a surprising impact this year is the nose tackle, Kyon Barrs, who has continued to improve each year and shows a lot of potential as a future star. Barrs moves with surprising quickness for a guy over 300 lbs:
His go-to pass rush move is the swim move:
At the defensive tackle position, Arizona has another rising star in true sophomore and second-year starter, Paris Shand. Another big guy with surprising speed, Shand is a people-mover:
Here he punches the ball loose for a forced fumble:
Rotating snaps with Shand is the UCLA transfer, Tiaoalii “Tia” Savea.
I think the Arizona defensive line is a pretty good microcosm of the Arizona football team as a whole: although not currently an elite unit, they have a lot of young talent showing a lot of improvement from year-to-year, along with some other solid Pac-12 transfers filling out the roster. It might not sound like a lot, but I watched highly-touted recruits at USC get worse each year under Clay Helton, so “getting better each year” is hardly a given. Such progress flies under the radar when you’re on a 20-game losing streak or going 1-11 during a season (especially when that one win was TOTALLY FLIPPIN’ BOGUS), until one day it suddenly doesn’t. Jedd Fisch’s current situation mirrors exactly what Jonathan Smith and Oregon State went through just a few years ago.
Arizona has some big shoes to fill at linebacker after losing the very experienced Anthony Pandy and Treshaun Hayward to graduation. Filling those shoes are Jerry Roberts (originally a Bowling Green transfer, although he actually took over for Hayward last year after Hayward’s season-ending injury) and redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage.
I mentioned earlier Arizona’s relative weakness defending the run, and that’s at least partially the responsibility of the linebackers. However, Jerry Roberts is actually doing fairly well so far, and is currently leading the team in tackles:
Roberts is probably not the best pass rusher, but he’s been solid so far as a tackler (his primary responsibility at middle linebacker), even against Mississippi State (who ran through Arizona like a freight train).
On the other hand, Arizona has had some early growing pains with the freshman Kolbe Cage. Cage clearly likes to hit people, and that includes an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a late hit on a player who lost his helmet. Cage also struggled in tackling against Mississippi State. He does have one pass breakup, though:
Arizona has an above-average secondary, but this is actually a group that has shown some noticeable improvement this year.
Fourth year cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace—someone I have been critical of in the past—has been playing fantastic this year and last, and will almost certainly be matched up on Cal’s top receiver. He will completely blanket receivers:
He shows good instincts for the ball:
On the other side of the field is the sophomore corner Treydan Stukes:
I don’t really have an opinion on Stukes yet, it’s probably too early to tell. He wasn’t particularly strong last year (understandably so, as a freshman) but he’s looked alright so far this year. He looks to have usurped the starting job from Isaiah Rutherford, someone I was definitely not a fan of last year.
I don’t have highlights of the safeties, although for different reasons. Christian Young, last year’s hybrid linebacker/safety, is back to his original safety position. Not surprising for someone previously chosen for that hybrid role, but Young is clearly Arizona’s best run defender and tackler in the secondary—he’s a big defensive back with a lot of speed. I don’t have any pass coverage clips of him because no one has tried him in coverage.
Jaxen Turner, on the other hand, is someone I previously was high on. Turner is a safety prone to boom-or-bust play, and so far this year, he’s been getting picked on. In particular, he has not been great in run coverage, and he’s been caught out of position a few times in pass coverage. He’s had some really great games last year, followed by some really not-so-great games.
Finally, there’s Gunner Maldonado in the “Star” position. He’s another player I haven’t seen enough to judge. He did not fare well in coverage against Mississippi State, but there’s not much shame in being out-talented by an SEC team.
The Arizona defense has been steadily improving under good coaching, and contains a lot of promising young recruits. They have performed near the conference average so far, but there is clearly the potential to get better. Let’s just hope no one decides to have a break-out game against Cal, because that’s exactly the sort of thing that always happens to Cal.
You can find my full clips here.