Arizona looks to get creative with new defensive coordinator

TUCSON, Ariz. -- In 1990, the 26-year-old, defensive-minded new head coach at Glenville State turned his thoughts to offense by asking himself some fairly simple questions.

“What do I not want to see?" wondered Rich Rodriguez. "What gives me anxiety, headaches on defense?”

That is how Rodriguez, a former safety at West Virginia, began the process of creating an up-tempo, no-huddle offense with read option and spread concepts that then circulated throughout college football like a virus for defenses.

A quarter-century later, Rodriguez, now the coach at Arizona, looked at his defense and felt it needed a change. He considered some minor tweaks, but then decided to blow the entire thing up. By mid-January, he'd ditched his entire defensive staff, including longtime companions Jeff Casteel and Bill Kirelawich, and hired a much younger crew, headlined by Marcel Yates, the 38-year-old up-and-coming coordinator at Boise State.

Immediately and not illogically, everyone wanted to know what scheme the Wildcats would run. Would they continue with Casteel's 3-3-5? Would they run the base nickel Yates used at Boise State? Would the Wildcats make like Oregon and revert to a more traditional, even-front 4-3 look?

Rodriguez and Yates and their players aren't saying, and spring practices have been closed, but the gist one hears is that things are in a test-tube phase until four new coaches and the players become better acquainted.

“I hired more of a personality than a scheme," Rodriguez said. “We are going to come up with our own scheme over the next six or seven months.”

What Rodriguez will say is that the genesis of his wholesale changes on defense is a desire to revisit the sort of thinking he had at Glenville State: What would give him anxiety and headaches as he calls plays against a defense?

“He wanted a young coordinator with an open mind that wanted to think outside of the box and do some different stuff," Yates said. “His words were, ‘I have some parameters that I want. I’ll lay out the parameters. It’s up to you to go figure out how to get it done.’ I understood why he wanted those parameters. I got it. Other people may think he’s crazy, I looked at it like, ‘I see where you’re coming from.’”

While no one is claiming they are going to lead a defensive revolution -- the game has been around too long for anything to be truly new -- it is possible that the Wildcats are going to offer up something markedly different than what they played last year, and perhaps different from what most anyone else is playing in the Pac-12.

The starting point is trying to confuse an opposing quarterback about what he is going to face when the ball is snapped. When Arizona played Boise State and Yates' defense in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2014 season, Rodriguez noted that, “What you saw was not always what you got.”

Said safety/linebacker Paul Magloire, “It’s definitely different. Everybody is moving around. Everybody has adjustments. I think everybody likes it. I think everybody is going to like that style of play.”

Complicating matters, however, is an apparent lack of A-list talent. No returning Wildcats defender earned even honorable mention on the 2015 All-Pac-12 team, a dubious distinction Arizona shares only with Oregon State.

A no-name defense might not be completely a bad thing, though. After all-everything linebacker Scooby Wright went down early last season, the Wildcats were not only sometimes overwhelmed physically at the point of attack, they also were often out of position. They had been so reliant on Wright's leadership and playmaking bailing them out, they seemed to overcompensate by trying to do too much, which often ended up meaning blown assignments.

“I felt we were playing hard but we weren’t executing, we weren’t locked in," Magloire said. “Everybody looked to Scoob as the leader on the defense. He was very vocal, out there calling guys out if they were not getting to the ball. He’d spark a fire. Even when he came back for just the bowl game, you could sense a difference. [But] nobody really stepped up after he got hurt. I think that’s what really hurt us.”

The 2015 numbers were bad. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense (35.8 points per game), pass efficiency defense and turnovers forced. No Pac-12 team gave up more rushing touchdowns (30), and they also were the worst in the red zone, yielding a touchdown 72.4 percent of the time when foes pushed inside their 20-yard line. That ranked 118th in the nation, in fact.

Yates has watched all the film from 2015, and has a pretty good idea of what he has and doesn't have. He called his players "red collar guys," switching from Boise State's main color to Arizona's. He noted that Boise State played good defense without a lot of four- and five-star recruits, though he added that he and Rodriguez wouldn't mind picking a few more of those up over the coming recruiting campaigns. The youth movement on staff undoubtedly is a nod toward adding energy to the recruiting effort, as well as to practices.

At present, there's no solution to talent questions, so Yates and Rodriguez talk about outworking, out-thinking and out-flanking foes.

“Any time something is different, to me that can work in your favor — if it’s sound and people know what they’re doing," Yates said. "But it still comes down to fundamentals. It’s still going to come down to can we cover and can we tackle.”

And whether they can create anxiety and headaches for an opposing offense.