Arizona Football

Arizona Wildcats Coach Kevin Sumlin Hoping Rhoads Lead to Better Defense With New Coordinator

As the Pacific defensive backs coach in 1993, Paul Rhoads ventured to Tucson and saw what a great defense looks like on the turf at Arizona Stadium.

Arizona and the Desert Swarm defense was in the third game of the season, and the No. 14 Wildcats escaped with a 16-13 win over the now-defunct Pacific program. Tedy Bruschi, Rob Waldrop, Sean Harris and Co. limited the Tigers to 164 yards of total offense.

Rhoads now takes over the Wildcats’ defense as Kevin Sumlin’s new defensive coordinator. Arizona is far, far removed from the Desert Swarm defense days. Rhoads, the former Iowa State head coach and eight-year defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, has a challenge on his hands in the same capacity the Tigers had that stormy night on Sept. 11, 1993, against heavily-favored Arizona.

“We played a great football game against a very good football team that night,” Rhoads said during a press conference at the Lowell-Stevens Facility on Friday afternoon. “The game was delayed by lightning (for an hour). They came in and asked us during the delay if we wanted to take the check and go home.

“They were a very physical team we got ourselves beat in pretty good. … I was young and naïve and said, ‘Heck no. We’re staying and fighting. We’re playing this game.’ That night that I was here, experienced the atmosphere, experienced the University of Arizona, experienced the Tucson community, I knew this was someday a place I’d like the opportunity to coach.”

It was believed to be the first game ever delayed at Arizona.

Rhoads’ secondary held up well against Dan White and Arizona’s passing offense, limiting the quarterback to 11-of-22 passing for 114 yards without a touchdown. The Wildcats controlled the game running for 277 yards which helped set up three field goals.

Paul Rhoads (YouTube video capture)

Rhoads-Harris Connection

Rhoads has developed a friendship with Harris and Cha-Ron Walker — former Arizona standouts — who are the parents of Arizona defensive end Jalen Harris and prized recruit Jason Harris of Gilbert Higley. Walker played basketball at Arizona under Joan Bonvicini.

Jason is a four-star defensive end talent who is considering Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Indiana and Auburn, according to 247 Sports.

When Rhoads was on UCLA’s staff the last two years he recruited Jason and developed a bond with Harris and Walker. Those close to the family have indicated to me that they believe Rhoads is a good man and that it was an “awesome” hire by Sumlin.

During the press conference, Sumlin said of Rhoads: “He’s not just a coach but a man with tremendous integrity. He has a lot of experience. … I think the biggest thing he brings to the table is the tenacity of a defense that’s going to play hard that’s going to be aligned correctly and be fundamentally sound.”

Rhoads Leads to Better Defense

Over his nine combined seasons as a defensive coordinator at Auburn (2008) and Pittsburgh (2000-07), Rhoads’ units ranked in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense six times and the top 12 for fewest yards three times.

Arkansas did rank No. 102 nationally in total defense (allowing 438.3 yards per game) in his one year as defensive coordinator in 2017 before Bret Bielema was dismissed and he took over as the interim coach at the end of the season. That was a tough year to judge Rhoads’ worth with Bielema losing favor with the Arkansas administration.

Arizona’s highest total defense rating since it was No. 32 in 2010 under Mike Stoops: No. 63 in 2013, Rich Rodriguez’s second season, allowing 401.1 yards a game. The average rating of Arizona’s defense this decade is a meager No. 99 in the nation.

Rhoads, who is said to be as tough as his gravely voice, has a tremendous challenge on his hands but he is not daunted by it.

“I had a personal itch to coordinate again that needed scratching,” Rhoads said. “When the opportunities started to present themselves, this is one I was immediately very excited about.

“We’re going to play hard. We’re going to fly around the field and we’re going to play with a fanatical effort that Arizona fans will be proud of. We’re going to be lined up properly. We’re going to be fundamentally and technically sound.”

Zone, Pressure, Man Defense

Rhoads quipped about his style of defense expected at Arizona: “Let me put it this way — we’re going to play zone, we’re going to pressure and we’ll play man.”

He said Arizona will use both a three-man and four-man front.

He also mentioned he will likely coach linebackers, which leaves the defensive line and safeties positions open. The defensive line coach hire will be significant inasmuch as that’s Jason Harris’ position. It could turn the tide for him toward Arizona.

The future of former Arizona great Chuck Cecil, who took over as defensive coordinator after Marcel Yates was fired, is uncertain. I was told by somebody familiar with Arizona’s recruiting that Cecil has not been recruiting for the Wildcats.

Rhoads Has Good Arizona Recruiting Base

Rhoads recruited Mountain Pointe High School standout Kenny Churchwell to UCLA. Churchwell, a defensive back, is a Casa Grande native.

He can tell recruits he has the background of coaching 14 of his defensive players at Pitt to All-Big East first-team honors. He coached two-time All-American and 2006 Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist Darrelle Revis.

Bernard “Josh” Lay (2006, New Orleans Saints), Shawntae Spencer (2004, San Francisco 49ers), Torrie Cox (2003, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Ramon Walker (2002, Houston Texans) joined Revis as Panthers chosen in the NFL Draft during Rhoads’ tenure.

Under Rhoads’ direction at Iowa State, three linebackers garnered All-Big 12 first team honors, including Jeremiah George in 2013 and A.J. Klein and Jake Knott in 2012.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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.

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