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The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona football midseason report card: Defense and special teams

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Larry Hogan / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona is halfway done with its schedule and headed into a bye week. Here’s our midseason report — finishing with the defense and special teams.

Defensive Line

Arizona’s switch from four down linemen to three hasn’t done anything to change the talent level of the unit and, for the second straight year, the defensive line is Arizona’s weakest defensive unit.

The Wildcats rank 104th in the nation in sacks per game with one per game. As bad as the mark is, it actually puts Arizona on pace to surpass its dreadful 10-sack season last year.

Of course, most of them haven’t come from the line — only one sack has been made by defensive linemen this season.

Sione Tuihalamaka has done a decent job as the cog in the middle at nose tackle, but the defensive ends haven’t been able to reach opposing quarterbacks. To be fair, those opposing quarterbacks haven’t had all day to throw in the pocket. They’ve just had most of the day.

Grade: D

Linebackers

On one hand, Arizona ranks 85th in average rushing yards allowed, with 182 yards a game. The defense allows 33 points per game, at 95th overall.

On the other hand, juniors Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers have been two of the Wildcats’ standout defenders this season, currently sitting at first and second in total tackles, respectively. Redshirt freshman Sir Thomas Jackson has also done a nice job in the starting role, especially considering his unknown abilities entering the year. Flowers and Jackson also have 3.5 combined sacks this season and Fischer has two forced fumbles and two recoveries.

They clearly aren’t the strongest unit in the nation, or even the conference. But with the complete lack of depth at the position, the linebackers have actually done pretty well so far.

Grade: B

Secondary

The secondary has perfected a pretty good impersonation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this year — at times it has played well, especially at the safety spots, and at other times it has been eviscerated by opposing offenses (see Oregon State or Stanford).

Arizona ranks 112th nationally in average yards allowed through the air, but the 57 percent opponent completion percentage is much better than the other teams in the Pac-12.

That disparity is a result of two things: Arizona’s high-paced offense forces opponents to attempt more passes, and when they do complete them, the Wildcats have a knack for giving up long pass plays. Arizona’s five interceptions are also average at best, tying with 16 other teams for 49th in the nation. But out of those poor numbers have come star performers, specifically safeties Jared Tevis and Tra’Mayne Bondurant.

Tevis flew all over the field before his injury against Oregon State, and Bondurant has 10.5 tackles for a loss this season, four more than the next best player, Marquis Flowers. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight also returned well from his knee injury last year and has three interceptions — including a huge pick-six during Arizona’s upset of then-No. 18 Oklahoma State.

Grade: C

Special Teams

To put it simply, the special teams have been bad.

Arizona ranks 116th in kickoff returns with a 15.7 yard average.

Punt returner Richard Morrison is averaging 6.3 yards, which is 60th nationally, and has a long of just 20 yards.

Place kicker John Bonano finally reached a 50 percent completion rate after his two successes at Stanford, but the senior is still 6-for-11 on the year and has missed three kicks inside 20 yards.

His perfect record from extra points is a nice change of pace for Arizona fans, but it still can’t erase his missed 25-yard chip shot that would have beat Toledo in regulation during week one.

The only saving grace is that Arizona hasn’t allowed a return touchdown, either on punts or kickoffs, and punter Kyle Dugandzic is 19th overall with an average of 44 yards per punt.

Grade: D

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