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Opponent Defense Preview: ‘Zona

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Who’s ready for round two?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Oregon State at Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When I think of Arizona football, I think of defense that’s mediocre at its best and sieve-like at worst. Just real bad, Scooby Wright notwithstanding. But from what we’ve seen in 2020 — even if it’s just been one game — that might be starting to change. Sure, they’re still an offensive football team first and foremost, and it’s not like any of their defensive units are overpowered or anything, but it looks like they’re at least making progress in the right direction of getting a more complete team.

So if there’s one thing to remember going into Saturday, it’s that you need to forget your past notions of Arizona’s defense. It looks like they’re not gonna be total pushovers anymore.

Personnel and What to Expect

Alright, now that that’s been said, this is still a unit that lost seven starters from last year’s not good defense; even as they’re improving, it’s a work in progress that Washington is facing.

One of the things that stood out to me watching them against USC is that, unless my eyes deceive me (which, granted, is totally possible given my optometrist says they are, and I quote, “So bad it’s impossible to measure them”) (also, hi Dr. Paul since you’re probably reading this!), this is one of the first teams the Huskies have played in a minute that still uses a traditional non-nickel formation with any frequency. They still primarily are in a 3-3-5 or 4-2-5, or sometimes 2-4-5, but you might actually get to see a true front seven for the first time in a hundred years. Hooray!

It’s hard to fully accurately judge Arizona’s defense just since the sample size is so small plus USC practiced at sucking last week, but one of the things that stood out is up front where they actually, wait for it, were a bit disruptive. Not anything crazy, but more than we’ve come to expect from the Wildcats.

The defensive line particularly benefits from two grad transfers from one state east, Roy Lopez and Aaron Blackwell, each of whom had three tackles against USC and, more importantly, .5 and two tackles for loss each. Those two have helped increase the pressure in the interior, something which has eased the burden on the defense as a whole.

While the defensive line as a unit were improved, there’s still a lack of depth that limits them especially as the game goes on.

Also what’s interesting is that their approach to USC’s air game was a three man rush more often than I’d expect — that makes more sense to me against a more pure Mike Leach air raid, but against USC’s more diverse routes and superior athletes, it mostly just made Kedon Slovis’ job cushy. (I could talk about how off Slovis looked anyway, but that’d require a different post.)

Otherwise in the pass rush and then some, redshirt junior and Arizona legacy Jalen Harris has pretty impressive versatility as an outside linebacker who can rush the passer or drop back into coverage. At 6’5” and upwards of 250 lbs, he had both two tackles for loss and a pass breakup against the Trojans last week. Opposite him in their nickel, we’ll most often see redshirt freshman Kwabena Watson.

The linebackers’ depth both inside and outside also isn’t a strength — guys like Colin Schooler, Kylan Wilborn, and Tony Fields all transferring certainly didn’t help them out here.

A pleasant surprise for the Cats though has been two former walk-ons not just becoming starters, but becoming, at least based on the USC game, quite good. Those two would be redshirt juniors Rourke Freeburg and Parker Henley at the inside linebacker spots. Freeburg in particular was impressive, with two tackles for loss including a hugely important red zone stop on fourth down; when set free, the words “flying around” are an apt description for his play. He’s quick and instinctual if a bit undersized — in other words, really Ben Burr-Kirven-esque.

The leading two tacklers on the team last week were defensive backs, but the leader of the linebackers in tackles was the senior Anthony Pandy.

True freshman Derick Mourning also rotated in, alongside previously mentioned outside guy Watson; those two are obviously the future here.

Onto the defensive backs, where Coach Kevin Sumlin has fully admitted regarding the safeties, “we’re thin there.”

The two leading tacklers last week were safeties, Jaxen Turner and Rhedi Short, so at least we know those two are gonna show up a lot. Otherwise Jarrius Wallace is the other player who’ll rotate in at safety, but the two others listed in the two-deep, Isaiah Mays and Christian Young, didn’t record any stats.

The outside starting corners are Christian Roland-Wallace and Lorenzo Burns. Both at 5’11,” it’ll be interesting to see how much man coverage they try to run — they did it occasionally against USC. And while it’s not like either of these guys are puny height-wise (although Burns is a thin 175 lbs), the first thing that comes to mind is how that would present opportunities to bigger receivers like Puka Nacua and Ty Jones. Even Terrell Bynum has a height advantage by two inches.

That being said, don’t let Burns’ diminutive-ish size fool you. He’s the most experienced defender on the team, has an NFL future, and has more passes broken up than anyone in the Pac-12 — and more than all but nine other players in the country. Roland-Wallace also isn’t a slouch, although he had some absolutely horrid luck against USC last week; what would’ve been a game-winning interception ended up tipping off his hands due to a poorly-timed jump and went right into the arms of a USC receiver. The next play, the Trojans scored their own game-winner. Even if they had some bad luck, Burns and Roland-Wallace team up to make a pretty good cornerback duo.

The main thing that stands out about Arizona’s defense is that really nothing stands out, and I mean that as a compliment. As a team whose strength in the past — and present, even if that’s improving — has been offense, something “standing out” on defense almost always meant it was standing out in a negative way. Now, for the first time in a while, they look pretty balanced, better at tackling, and like they can put their offense in a position to be successful. A big weakness is lack of depth in most units, but at least until they get to that point, they’re not just gonna hemorrhage yards and points.

Bottom Line

Like I mentioned previously, it’ll be interesting to see if Puka Nacua, Ty Jones, Rome Odunze, and, to a lesser extent, Terrell Bynum can out-physical the defensive backs. Doing so won’t be a given simply because Roland-Wallace and Burns are rather good at what they do. Yet still, all of those four have a height advantage — Jones by a whole five inches — while Puka and Rome especially have the build and skillset to do some damage there.

Otherwise, just like I mentioned in yesterday’s Stuff and Shenanigans, it’s in UW’s best interest to do much more running out of less tight formations. Not none, just... less. I feel like a combination of some out-willing the defense in the 22 and 21 personnel formations that we saw against OSU plus some more, ahem, spacious-set Pulling Guard Extravaganza runs behind a dude like Ulamoo Ale could be really effective. This especially feels true considering that Arizona’s defense is improved but very thin.

Otherwise, it seems like Arizona’s thin-across-the-board yet improved-across-the-board defense is a perfect opportunity for Washington to also run a more balanced offense than last week.

As always, any lurking ‘Zona fans feel free to give your own insight (or correct anything dumb I’ve said).

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.