Something To Prove: Arizona's defense
By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Arizona fans got exactly what they had hoped for out of the Wildcats' offense in coach Rich Rodriguez's debut season. RichRod's up-tempo attack averaged a school-record 526.2 yards and 38.2 points per game in 2012, seventh and 15th in the FBS, respectively. Arizona finished in the top three in the Pac-12 in nearly every significant offensive statistical category, and All-America running back Ka'Deem Carey paced the nation with 1,929 rushing yards.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats' offense wasn't the only record-setting unit in town. The Arizona defense -- led by former West Virginia coordinator Jeff Casteel -- surrendered the most total yards in the country en route to finishing as the most porous group in program history. The 'Cats allowed 499 yards and 38.2 points per game, and a few of their efforts were nothing short of disastrous: a 66-10 loss at UCLA, a 54-48 overtime loss at Stanford and a 49-0 loss at Oregon. In all, six different opponents put up more than 600 yards of offense against Arizona, yet Rodriguez somehow managed to guide his Wildcats to an 8-4 record in spite of his defense.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arizona failed to land a player on the All-Pac-12 first- or second-team defensive squads. This fall, it's clear there's nowhere to go for Arizona's D but up.
The Wildcats implement the 3-3-5 multiple spread defense, which features three down linemen and five defensive backs. It's a scheme dependent on the speed of its players, and Casteel favored the formation as West Virginia's defensive coordinator from 2003-11; it helped the Mountaineers contain Clemson in their 70-33 blowout victory in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
But the 3-3-5 didn't pan out for Arizona last season. In fact, Rodriguez inherited a Wildcats' defense that flailed defensively under former coach Mike Stoops -- Arizona gave up nearly 460 yards per game in 2011 -- and, somehow, allowed it to regress. But last year was the group's first season in a new system. Entering 2013, many of the faces remain the same.
Senior linebacker Jake Fischer was the Wildcats' leading tackler (119 tackles) and is one of 10 returning starters on defense. That much returning experience from a shoddy group may seem like a negative, but Casteel was adamant this spring that depth could pay dividends in the unit's second year in his scheme. Junior safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant will play a key role in the "roving" safety spot, and senior linebacker Marquis Flowers will look to build on his team-leading 5.5 sacks and three interceptions from 2012.
What remains unknown is how quickly the defensive line will gel, as Casteel prefers to rotate a handful of players through the three spots on the defensive front. That cast of characters includes senior nose guard Tevin Hood, who got in a fight with teammate Cody Ippolito during last season's New Mexico Bowl. For the defense to be successful, someone in that group will need to step up as a leader. Still, had its defense been even somewhat competent in 2012, Arizona likely would have been a contender in the Pac-12. Its offense should continue to light up the scoreboard this fall. Now, it's on virtually the same batch of defenders to make sure the second year in Casteel's system goes much more smoothly than the first.