The Arizona Wildcats defense allowed opponents to convert on third downs 46 percent of the time in 2017. That inability to get off the field left Arizona’s youthful and inexperienced defense exposed for much longer periods of time, with the fast-paced offense waiting on the sideline.
This daunting third-down stat is one of the deciding factors in whether the Wildcats can transform themselves from a turnstile defense that relied on an offensive dynamo quarterback a year ago into a unit that can at least compliment the ‘Cats offense.
The combination of long defensive drives with a no-huddle offense, which Rich Rod preferred, left Yates’ unit often gassed and overextended, This lead to borderline helpless showings that saw the ‘Cats give up 49 points to USC, 48 to Oregon, 44 to Cal and 42 to ASU last year.
Despite this, there is a growing sense of optimism in the program that the Wildcat defense will be able to hold their own this year. Year three under defensive coordinator Marcel Yates could turn out to be the most encouraging one yet.
The Wildcats have a linebacking core of sophomores Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler that Yates is expecting to wreck havoc on opposing Pac-12 offenses.
“What’s the ceiling? I hope there is no ceiling. They had a really good freshman year. They made plays,” Yates said. “I think they’re having a better understanding of the defense, what we’re trying to do, just from watching film, watching games that they played, seeing all the good things they did but also the bad things they did.”
Fields II, a Freshman All-American last season, agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“We know exactly what we have to do because [Yates] touches on everything,” Fields said. “He tells us when the corner’s messed up and things like that. So, we know everybody’s responsibility on the field now.”
Yates is helping a young group through their growing pains, and those pains sometimes end up as points on the scoreboard for the opposing team. But the ‘Cats said they feel they are starting to turn the right corner.
“All those guys, they go from trying to learn the defense to trying to learn, ‘OK, how is the offense going to attack us?’ Which is a huge difference,” Fields II said.
The two middle anchors, Fields II and Schooler, figure to play a key role again this year, but they’ll need help from some of the other players on the field.
A bulked up defensive line, injected with “beef” according to Yates, may help do the trick.
“The biggest difference this year is that we’ve got a couple more linemen, like PJ Johnson and Mykee Irving,” Fields said. “That was a problem for us last year. Our gaps opened up a lot ... Now that we have depth, it’ll be a lot different.”
Taking a few years to build the defense was Yates’ plan all along. With the players he recruited the last two to three years growing into their roles as team leaders, it’s starting to become the group he envisioned when he packed his bags and came to Tucson from Boise State.
“I gave myself a certain amount of time when I came in here in ’16 and I kind of looked under the hood,” Yates said. “I said three or four years would be enough time to recruit the right kind of guys.”
Now in his third year, Yates is on the verge of seeing the fruits of his labors during his time in Tucson start to bloom.
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