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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Wildcats secondary looking to bounce back from tough 2011

Janice Biancavilla
Janice Biancavilla/ Arizona Daily Wildcat Marquis Flowers, No. 2, and the UA football team play Stanford at Arizona Stadium on Saturday Sept. 17, 2011.

Few teams did a worse job of defending the pass than Arizona in 2011 — only one school, Memphis, gave up more passing yards per game. But with an entirely new coaching staff in place, headed by Rich Rodriguez, and a new defensive scheme in tow with new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, the secondary is trying to wipe the slate clean and look to improve in 2012.

“One thing we have to do is forget (about last year) — it’s the past,” safety Marquis Flowers said. “Yes it was bad, but now we have a chance to come out and redeem ourselves. We’re holding that on our shoulders this year. I think everybody’s focused, no one wants to see any of those performances again.”

The Wildcats are trying to forget the 298.9 yards per game and 65.9 percent completion percentage contributed to Arizona’s 4-8 bowl-less season.

To make matters worse, they’ve also lost cornerback Trevin Wade (7th round pick) and safety Robert Golden (free agent) to the NFL, leaving the team with a relatively inexperienced secondary.
So while the only way from 119th overall should be up, Arizona still has a ways to go if it wants to improve, and free safety Mark Watley said the team knows it.

But with the new system in place, Watley and the rest of the the secondary is working on everything — fundamentals, technique and even confidence, he added.

“We’re in better shape, so we won’t get as tired now,” Watley said. “But I think it comes down to fundamentals and technique and staying focused — staying tuned in and not doubting yourself or doubting your teammate around you and just playing ball.”

With Casteel now in charge, Arizona is changing from its 4-3 defense of the past to a 3-3-5 odd stack.

In simple terms, it means they’re sacrificing a defensive lineman — hence the three-man front — but bringing an extra safety onto the field.

This new scheme will allow more speed and quickness on the field while bringing more confusion as blitzes can come from corners or safeties without warning.

“It’s fast and can hit you from a lot of different places,” Watley said.

But as both the players and coaches have said, it’s still just defense and the execution is the most important part, as it’s something Arizona didn’t do particularly well last year.

Flowers believes that every defensive scheme will look the same if you don’t execute it properly, especially against high-powered offenses like Oregon.

Still, the increased speed and quickness can match up well in the fast-paced Pac 12 and fits well with the personnel the Wildcats have on defense this year.

Cornerback Shaquille Richardson thinks that the secondary is going to take big steps forward, especially because of the entirely new coaching staff.

“We’re playing way harder,” Richardson said. “We can control our effort, how hard we play, and we’ve been playing balls to the wall.”

Effort isn’t the only change though — the secondary also wants to bring more physicality to the field.

With the loss of safety Adam Hall, who tore his ACL in spring camp, the team is losing a big hitter in the back, something Arizona’s current stable of defensive backs will work to replicate in his absence.

“We need that (defensive) intensity on our team,” safety Jared Tevis said. “Big hits — there’s nothing really to replace that. A big hit gets the whole team excited.”

And since the 3-3-5 puts more speed but less size on the field. Corners and safeties will have an increased role in tackling, which Watley said the secondary is embracing.

“We take pride (in tackling) now,” he said. “Last year the corners and safeties approached each tackle in a more typical fashion, but now they’re learning how to adjust for every scenario.”

The struggles of the defense against the pass last year can’t be pinned on just the performance and talent of the secondary.

The Wildcats played against two quarterbacks last year who are now starting for NFL teams — Stanford’s Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts) and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns) — and the defensive line only had 10.0 sacks on the year, tied for second-worst in the country.

“You’re only as good as your upfront, and vice versa,” cornerbacks coach David Lockwood said. “Our job is to cover (the receivers) early and the defensive line to cover them late. We have to do a great job in coverage to give the guys up front time to execute their stunts and execute their blitzes and get (to the quarterback). It’s not all on one unit.”

With Watley as the only senior in the secondary and question marks still surrounding the defensive line, Arizona has a lot of work to do if it wants to make a turnaround.

But safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant said the defense has the ability to make the leap forward and that they’ll need to if they want to be successful this season.

“We just have to stay focused,” Bondurant added. “We have the talent, we just have to keep working … We have to go out there with a sense of urgency this year and just play hard at all times, because when we played hard we got good results.”

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