The first line of defense for Arizona is indefensible.
Using a point system out of fantasy football, only one of the top 13 players is positioned up front — redshirt sophomore defensive end Jalen Harris.
Harris, who can be one of the team’s most dynamic players, is rated eighth (with 15 points) on a defense that has only two sacks, one quarterback hurry and eight tackles for loss through the first two games against Hawaii and NAU. Those are very weak numbers considering the Rainbow Warriors and Lumberjacks combined for 153 offensive snaps.[table “11” not found /]
The top three Arizona defenders are linebackers — Colin Schooler with 22 points and Anthony Pandy and Tony Fields II each with 20.
Eight of the top 15 players are defensive backs led by fifth-year senior cornerback Jace Whittaker (19.5 points). Only two of the top 15 defenders are linemen — Harris and No. 15-rated Trevon Mason, a junior college transfer who is a defensive tackle with only six points.
Fifth-year senior defensive linemen Finton Connolly and Justin Belknap, junior defensive tackle J.B. Brown and junior defensive end Kylan Wilborn combine for only 14.5 points. That’s an experienced group that has less points than Harris on his own.
Rating of units by points: 1, Safeties (78.5): 2, Linebackers (74); 3, Cornerbacks (55.5); 4, Defensive Ends (31); 5, Defensive Tackles (12).
This is the anti-Desert Swarm, who wreaked havoc on opposing offenses because of pressure applied up front by the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Rob Waldrop, Ty Parten, Jimmie Hopkins and Jim Hoffman.
While it might not be fair to compare any defense to the Desert Swarm, keep in mind that it took Rich Ellerson — the mastermind of the double-flex defense (one in which a tackle was positioned off the line) — his first year at Arizona in 1992 to devise that defense.
Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is in his fourth season (second with Kevin Sumlin) and the results to this point of the season are not becoming of an experienced coach. Arizona’s defense is rated No. 123 in the nation with only seven teams worse and the Wildcats’ best opponents are ahead, starting with Texas Tech on Saturday night.
To wit: Yates, as a defensive coordinator, has produced only one defensive lineman who was drafted into the NFL — P.J. Johnson, who was selected in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions in April and was cut at the end of the preseason.
In 11 seasons as a defensive back coach and defensive coordinator at Boise State, he produced one NFL linebacker (2nd rounder Kamalei Correa to Baltimore in 2016) and three defensive backs (Darian Thompson, N.Y. Giants, third round, 2016; George Iloka, Cincinnati, fifth round, 2012; and Kyle Wilson, N.Y. Jets, first round, 2010).
As co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 2012-13, Yates was in charge of the secondary and none of the Aggies’ defensive backs in those two years were drafted.
In Yates’ tenure, the Wildcats have finished 115th in total defense in 2016, 119th in 2017 and 92nd last season. Never has a defense been overwhelmingly effective that he coached at Arizona. To be considered a worthy team in college football, a defense has to be overwhelmingly good, rated routinely in the top 50.
Arizona’s defense was rated No. 25 in 2009 and No. 32 in 2010 under defensive-minded coach Mike Stoops — who got the Wildcats back in the bowl picture after the John Mackovic fiasco. The highest rating since then for Arizona is No. 63 in 2013. After that, it’s been a free-fall to a ranking no higher than the No. 92 rating last year.
By all accounts, Yates is a good guy who is a players coach, but that might be more of a hinderance than a help to the Wildcats at this time. Does he light a fire under the players at practice and during the game? He is a proven secondary coach. Is he able to lead an entire defense?
The Arizona Daily Star’s Michael Lev led off a story this week this way: “If they defended their opponents as fervently as they defend their coordinator, the Arizona Wildcats might not be in this predicament.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.