Switching sides: Rodriguez turns to offense to fill defensive depth chart
Larry Hogan/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Keoni Bush-Loo, No. 3, plays defense at UA practice.
If there is one thing that’s certain about Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, it’s that his football teams score points. They always have.
In his stints as head coach at West Virginia and Michigan, and as a coordinator at Clemson and Tulane Universities, Rodriguez’s spread option, no-huddle offense gave him a reputation as an offensive guru — at West Virginia, Rodriguez coached top-10 scoring offenses in both 2006 and 2007.
Now at Arizona, he is trying to translate some of that to the defensive side of the ball — literally.
Due to lack of depth as a result of injuries, graduation and a few players leaving the team over the summer, Rodriguez was forced to move three Wildcats from offense to defense.
“Stay tuned for linebacker, I’m sure [quarterback] Matt Scott would do it if I asked him,” Rodriguez said about the position that lost Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls to graduation, along with transfer linebacker Brian Wagner quitting the team in the summer before ever playing a down for the UA.
He may have been joking, but Arizona’s lack of depth has been no laughing matter. While he might not be desperate enough to move his starting quarterback to the other side, Rodriguez did enlist a few key members of his backfield for defensive duties.
Taimi Tutogi, who ran for four touchdowns in 2011, has been getting reps at both defensive end and at fullback, and will continue to do so in the regular season. Greg Nwoko, who hasn’t played defense since middle school, was permanently moved to the linebacker position after playing running back for most of his life.
Also, freshman Keoni Bush-Loo was recruited to the UA as a tight end, yet Rodriguez decided he would be better off as a linebacker/defensive end hybrid.
Switching players from offense to defense, or vice versa, is nothing new for Arizona’s new head coach, although in the past it’s been less about a lack of depth and more about capitalizing on talent.
“We’ve (switched) guys not out of necessity but because of the talent,” Rodriguez said. “We’d move explosive players that maybe played corner or played receiver and maybe play a little on the defense or pass rush or something. This is a little bit of both.”
Of the three players switching sides, Tutogi is probably the best prepared for his defensive switch, as the 6-foot-1, 260-pound senior was recruited to the UA as a defensive end.
“When I came out here, the depth at d-end was way too deep with Brooks Reed and D’Aundre Reed and Ricky Elmore,” Tutogi said. “So (former coach) Mike Stoops just asked me if I would mind playing fullback. I took that role because they only had Chris Gronkowski so it was guaranteed playing time.”
He will continue to play a key role on offense as the Wildcats de facto goal-line back and the only experienced fullback on the roster, but if fall camp is any indication, Rodriguez’s defensive experiment is looking pretty smart.
“Taimi is a talented player,” defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. “He can do a lot of things both offensively and defensively. Taimi can make a difference for us a little defensively.”
During Saturday’s scrimmage in Arizona Stadium, Tutogi gave a taste of what is in store for the season, with two rushes for 17 yards and a sack on defense. His willingness to play on both sides of the ball has impressed coaches, and he said that since defensive end is easy for him, he has no problem getting reps there.
“You just gotta do what you’re asked to and coached to,” Tutogi said. “When I’m out here, when they need me on the field, doesn’t matter if I’m tired or not, they know I’m gonna go my hardest and give it my all. If they want me on the field and on a 99-play drive and they want me out for every play I gotta be out there. You can’t take no downs off, you can’t afford to be tired with this offense.”
When Greg Nwoko received an unexpected phone call from co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, he feared the worst.
“I still remember when Coach Magee called me he said, ‘Don’t get mad’,” Nwoko said.
“For a minute my mind was like, ‘He’s gonna kick me off the team or something.’ I was just scared. He said, ‘We’re moving you to linebacker.’ I was like, ‘I’m not mad coach, I’ll help wherever the team needs me at.’”
“I’m pretty excited for it. I don’t have to get hit anymore at running back,” he added, laughing.
Nwoko, who ran for 543 yards and six touchdowns in 2009-10 before missing all of 2011 with an ACL injury, developed a bond with players like sophomore Ka’Deem Carey and juniors Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler. So, according to Nwoko it’s tough for him to leave his friends for a new position. Butler, though, has made it a point to let Nwoko know he won’t be going easy on him.
“I’ve been making fun of Greg,” Butler said with a smile. “I’ve been killing him. Cracking jokes when we be smacking the defense. He’s not tackling me, I let him know he can’t get me.”
Although he’s been sitting out recently due to a leg injury, Nwoko has no qualms with tackling his backfield mates.
“I’m gonna miss them boys a lot, but, I mean, it’s gonna be exciting trying to hit them every day,” he said.
Bush-Loo, a native of Honolulu, has a little bit of experience on defense from high school, but his focus for most of his football career has been on the offensive side of the ball. Junior linebacker Jake Fischer, the Wildcats’ defensive team leader, has taken Bush-Loo under his wing, making the transition much easier, Bush-Loo said.
“I’m just trying to get adjusted to the best of my ability,” Bush-Loo said. “I’m just trying to get into the playbook — that’s what Jake Fischer really tells me. He takes me in at lunch and just watches film and we (talk about) what we did bad, what we did good.”
While Bush-Loo still hasn’t fully adjusted to his permanent dual role as a defensive end/linebacker, Fischer believes that the 6-foot-4 freshman’s playing style will help him overcome any schematic difficulties.
“That kid’s just got a motor,” Fischer said. “He’s running all the time. You can throw him out there, even if he makes a mistake he can make up for it by running across the field and making a tackle.”