Arizona Wildcats’ 2018 Defense: A New Hope

Linebacker Tony Fields II is part of an impressive crew of sophomores.Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Cats now have size and plenty of young guys

Can't pressure the quarterback. Can't create turnovers. Not deep enough. Not good enough. Too small. Too slow.

Simply, too bad.

That was usually the state of the Arizona defense in six years under Rich Rodriguez. His go-go offenses sometimes thrilled and forced a massive rewrite of the school's record books, but it was often agony to watch his teams play defense at a school that had images of Ricky Hunley, Chuck Cecil, Rob Waldrop and Tedy Bruschi on a wall overlooking current Wildcats on the practice field.

If only those stars of yesteryear could have closed their eyes.

But, here we are, on our tip-toes for the Arizona's 2018 season, the one in which all eyes are on quarterback Khalil Tate and new coach Kevin Sumlin in advance of Saturday's opener at home against BYU. Well, most eyes. I'm looking at the defense. And I see something new ... yes, there it is.

Hope.

Going into the past few seasons, you knew the Arizona defense was going to be bad and there was nothing to be done about it. The Wildcats have not ranked in the national 100 (out of not quite 130 teams) in yards per game or points per game in any of the past three seasons.

Arizona did not release a depth chart Monday, but my guess it will look almost exactly how I projected after spring ball for Lindy's magazines. And that's a good thing. If you can easily predict a depth chart, that's a sign of stability.

There likely will be five sophomore starters -- linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields, "stud" linebacker/defensive end Kylan Wilborn, sophomore cornerback Lorenzo Burns and a safety TBA. Sophomores Jarius Wallace and Isaiah Hayes are vying at one safety position, and they will eventually be joined by 2017 starter Scottie Young Jr., another sophomore, who is suspended for the season opener.

There will be a key newcomer in the middle of the defensive line -- 335-pound junior college transfer P.J. Johnson.

"The beef," said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates.

Size and plenty of young guys.

Hope.

"Experience. Continuity and experience," Sumlin said Monday when asked about what gives him the most hope for his defense.

"We had some outstanding efforts and players (last season), had the freshman player of the year in the league (Schooler). All those guys are back. I like where we are up front with the kind of attitude that these guys have brought. It's just a chemistry.

"We're going to see, but we do have more experience. Like they said, the best thing about a freshman in football is that they become a sophomore. If that's the case, then we'll be a little bit better than we were last year."

A little bit better? Maybe significantly better? If Arizona could just get to average nationally, that would be a heck of a thing, and then all those sophomores will become juniors in 2019. Now, we're talking.

Especially as that young corps of second-year players grow up -- Schooler, Fields, Wilborn and Young (as well as promising classmates like linebacker Anthony Pandy, defensive lineman JB Brown and safety Troy Young) -- Arizona will get bigger, faster and better able to rush the passer without resorting to risky blitzes.

"I thought that that whole group ... just playing so young, I think that will help us out in the long run," Yates said during camp, when he emphasized the need to be better against the run. "They're growing up. They were babies last year."

RichRod's best defense at Arizona was his second one, in 2013, after Mike Stoops paid it forward by recruiting future pros Marquis Flowers, Shaq Richardson and Reggie Gilbert, as well as local kids Jake Fischer and Jared Tevis who become the high-production heart of that 2013 unit that finished 39th nationally in points allowed.

To be fair to Rodriguez, maybe he did the same thing, leaving a talented corps of young defenders as a present to Sumlin. The new head coach actually appears to have a legitimate two-deep.

"We talk here all the time about your job as a player is to help us develop trust in you," Sumlin said. "That isn't on Saturday, that is built through practice. We practice in that manner with the two-deep, and we feel pretty good about it, especially defensively."

He hopes so.

ARIZONA PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARTERS

DT Dereck Boles* (6-2, 306, Sr.)

NG P.J. Johnson (6-4, 335, Jr.)

DE Justin Belknap* (6-3, 259, Jr.)

STUD Kylan Wilborn* (6-2, 248, So.)

LB Colin Schooler* (6-0, 236, So.)

LB Tony Fields II* (6-1, 230, So.)

CB Lorenzo Burns* (5-10, 181, So.)

CB Jace Whittaker* (5-11, 189, Sr.)

S Tristan Cooper (6-1, 194, Jr.)

S Jarius Wallace (6-1, 180, So.)

S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles* (6-2, 209, Sr.)

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