Football Guide '17: Undersized defense will look to be creative with attack

justin_belknap
Rebecca Noble | The Daily Wildcat

Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) grimaces attempting to evade Arizona defensive end Justin Belknap during Arizona's overtime 35-28 loss to Washington in Arizona Stadium on Sept. 24, 2016.

Year one of the Marcel Yates era wasn’t a rousing success. The first-year defensive coordinator struggled to field a defense worthy of a Power Five conference school. A lack of depth at every position led to the Arizona Wildcats’ defense being one of the worst outfits in the country. Arizona finished near the bottom in almost every statistical ranking, including points allowed. 2017 may be more of the same, as the ‘Cats are once again lacking in the trenches and at linebacker. However, there is hope, as the secondary appears to be one of the better groups in the conference.

Defensive line

Luca Bruno leads a unit sorely lacking in heft and depth. Bruno, a senior defensive tackle, will be the most experienced player on the Wildcat front. He will be joined by sophomore Justin Belknap, a young player that was forced into action as a true freshman last season. He struggled toward the end of the season but should be better prepared with a summer of growth under his belt.

Tackle Sione Taufahema was expected to be an immediate contributor after arriving in Tucson from the JUCO ranks but was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury during fall camp. That injury means that Parker Zellers will have to shoulder more of the load inside. Zellers doesn’t possess prototypical size, and that weakness was exploited extensively last year.

This unit is one of the smallest in the country, and with few productive bodies available, the front may once again struggle to hold their own against physical offenses. Larry Tharpe, Jr. may be a surprise contributor off the edge for the Wildcats in 2017.

Linebacker

Paul Magloire exhausted his eligibility in 2016, leaving the second level of the ‘Cats defense in chaos. DeAndre’ Miller is the only returning linebacker with any significant experience, and he was a nonfactor last season. Miller started eight games and recorded a paltry 18 tackles in what was a disappointing junior year. He will have to be a factor this year, as the young ‘Cats find their way.

Gavin Robertson, Brandon Rutt and Kahi Neves will all see their roles enlarged. Incoming freshmen Joshua Brown and Jose Ramirez will also find their way onto the field. Ramirez, an early enrollee, was impressive during the spring; he is an athletic thumper.

With the lack of talent on the defensive line, it will be imperative that the linebacker corps holds their own. There are some talented young players, but the offensive circus known as the Pac-12 is hardly the place for on-the-job training. Freshman Tony Fields is a freshman to watch after gaining weight to match up to the size of the Pac-12.

Secondary

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has come a long way from being a lightly recruited afterthought. Flannigan-Fowles, through determination and attention to detail, has transformed himself into one of the best safeties on the West Coast. His ability in pass coverage has earned him some preseason accolades. He will be the focal point of what is an extremely underrated secondary.

While Flannigan-Fowles receives all the press, Isaiah Hayes toils in obscurity. Despite being known as the other safety, Hayes appears ready for a breakout season. His first year in Tucson was uneven, but he did manage to start in seven contests and record 38 tackles.

Senior cornerback Dane Cruikshank started every game last season; he made some impressive plays when placed on an island. The former junior college player is a physical presence, and he isn’t afraid to throw his significant size around. Jace Whittaker had 12 pass breakups in 2016; he is a perfect complement to Cruikshank at corner. Nickel back Tristan Cooper is a long, lanky, versatile athlete that can not only cover the slot but can move outside as well.

This group is a perfect mix of experience and youth and will be one of the better groups in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, a lack of pass rush from the defensive front may limit their effectiveness.

Special Teams

Steve McLaughlin isn’t walking through the door at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, and the ‘Cats desperately need a dependable kicking specialist. Junior Josh Pollack struggled from distance last season, connecting on only 1-in-6 kicks from beyond 40 yards. He has been pushed in camp by freshman Lucas Havrisik, but it appears that Pollack will survive the challenge. Pollack will do double duty, as he is the lone punter on the roster with significant experience.


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