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Arizona Wildcats football: Five questions

Tim Kish congratulates linebacker Derek Earls (40) after a defensive stop in the second quarter of the UCLA game. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Bob Condotta, the Washington Huskies football beat writer for the Seattle Times, asked me earlier this week to answer five questions about the Arizona Wildcats.

My responses ran on his Husky blog, and here they are now for you …

Q1: Obviously there has been a lot going on there with the change in coaches from Mike Stoops to interim coach Tim Kish. It sure looked like the players responded well to Kish with the 48-12 win over UCLA. What has been said by players about Kish and how he has handled the change so far?

A: It’s not just what the players have been saying, it’s that there is a noticeably better vibe around the program — just more positive energy. Kish is a discipline-first guy, but his coaching personality might be close to 180 degrees from Mike Stoops, whose team was playing like he coached on the sideline — too tightly wound. Kish has lightened the mood, talking often about just wanting the players to have fun in the second half of the season. Against UCLA last week, the Wildcats responded with a rare quick start, playing as if all the pressure had been lifted from their shoulders.

Q2: What were some of the more noticeable scheme changes in the UCLA game?

A: Arizona, quite cleverly, used the bye week to add the Desert Swarm’s old Double-Eagle Flex scheme to its defensive package in order to stuff UCLA’s Pistol running game. It worked beautifully. That scheme might not be a factor against Washington because the Huskies have great balance and can shred a team through the air, but Arizona could at least use the flex in short-yardage situations. On offense, the Wildcats have increasingly found success with its full-house backfield out of the shotgun — what they call the “Bone” formation. Having three running backs in the backfield allows Arizona to be more physical in the ground game, to better use play-action and to better protect quarterback Nick Foles (pictured above in an AP photo in last week’s win over UCLA). In that formation, defenses can’t cheat as much against Arizona’s outside receivers. If Foles sees one-on-one coverage outside, he is now protected well enough to take more shots down the field.

Q3: It also kind of looks like Arizona is just now getting healthy on offense, as well, especially with leading receiver Juron Criner being out or limited early. How much of a factor is it that he’s now back to health and is the receiving corps now playing to the level that many expected before the season?

A: Criner last week against UCLA looked like the Criner of 2010, when he had one of the best seasons for a receiver in school history. That was a huge positive sign, as Criner has been limited by appendicitis, a hand injury and a knee injury this season. Before the season, Arizona envisioned an unstoppable 6-foot-4 combination of Criner and Texas transfer Dan Buckner out wide. That hasn’t quite happened, but this is still a very deep unit, with senior Gino Crump surprisingly having taken the team lead in receptions with 39. Five players have at least 29 catches.

Q4: What have been the major issues on defense all season?

A: Lots of them. Arizona hasn’t been able to replace the pass rush of departed ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, going five games before the UCLA contest without a player recording a sack. The team’s best player up front, defensive tackle Justin Washington, hasn’t built on his Freshman All-American season, suffering from weight loss (stomach issues, coaches say) and then a knee injury. He’s back now but hasn’t been impactful. The inexperience and ineffectiveness of the line hasn’t helped a secondary that has been without starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight (ACL) all season and had its most feared hitter — safety Adam Hall (ACL) — for only one game. Arizona has given up huge yardage on the ground and through the air; the Huskies can probably take their pick.

Q5: Finally, four defensive backs will be out for half or all of Saturday’s game, suspended due to fighting against UCLA. What are the most significant implications of that?

A: It means that you could see two true freshmen start the game — cornerback Cortez Johnson and Tramayne Bondurant as the nickel back (which Arizona uses the majority of the team). Johnson is a big, physical corner who looked good in camp but hasn’t played much on defense this season and is coming back this week from concussion issues. Arizona will get Lyle Brown, who was the replacement cornerback last week, back after halftime. The secondary is Arizona’s deepest position on defense but is stretched to the max; the Wildcats spent practice this week getting a couple of offensive skill players ready in case of a defensive emergency. (Added note: One of those is redshirt freshman Tyler Slavin, who has been outside of the playing rotation at receiver.)

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