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Why are the Arizona Wildcats so thin on defense? Here’s what happened

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez has had to make do with a small group of scholarship defenders. Photo by Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez has been saying his defense is thin. How thin?

“Razor thin,” he said.

But, really. How thin is it?

A split of a team’s 85 allotted scholarships would normally be about 40 or 41 each for offense and defense, with a few left over for special teams players.

At Arizona, Rodriguez is operating at about two-thirds scholarship capacity on defense.

“We are playing everybody, every healthy body we’ve got defensively,” he said.

“Some are probably playing before their time. I haven’t been in a situation as thin as we were to start the season, let alone where we are right now. We were razor-thin defensively, and now we’re past that. That’s not an excuse; I’m just telling you where we’re at.”

Arizona has only 28 defensive players who were offered initial scholarships (in other words, not a walk-on who later earned a scholarship). And 10 of those are true freshmen, including seven who have had to play this season mostly on special teams. (See chart below.)

That’s the kind of shallow pool in which Rodriguez, who wants to rotate 22, 23 capable guys on defense, has to fish for talent.

That Arizona ranks 118th out of 120 teams in total defense (498.0 yards per game), is 105th in scoring defense (35.0 points per game) and has allowed more than 600 yards in five games isn’t a failure of coordinator Jeff Casteel’s unusual 3-3-5 scheme — it’s just a math problem. Not enough scholarship players.

Arizona defenders have at times been on the field for 90-plus plays in a game.

“It catches up to you eventually,” Rodriguez said.

You can say the same thing about recruiting misses, injuries and transfers.

In the five-year recruiting cycle from 2008 to 2012, the Wildcats signed 60 players for defense. Only 28 are still here still playing defense (well, 29 if you include two-way player Taimi Tutogi).

What’s worse, the four fifth-year seniors still on defense — safety Mark Watley and defensive linemen Dominique Austin, Chris Merrill and Willie Mobley — have contributed little. They have a combined 37 tackles this season. Austin, after starting the first four games, is out for the season because of injury.

Marquis Flowers

Marquis Flowers was Arizona’s career-leading tackler with 79 entering the season. Photo by Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Of those 28, none was a five-star recruit and only three were four-star recruits by Rivals.com — Mobley, junior linebacker Marquis Flowers and true freshman defensive Kyle Kelley, who is redshirting.

Not only are the scholarship numbers low, but so is elite talent and experience. Arizona has no player who entered the season with more than 79 career tackles (Flowers).

To boost numbers on defense, Rodriguez took Tutogi and made him a third-down defensive end. He switched redshirt freshman receiver Patrick Onwuasor to safety, and Onwausor had to start two games when Jared Tevis, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship after the spring, was injured.

Rodriguez also moved tight end Keoni Bush-Loo to defense, although the true freshman hasn’t played much.

In addition to Tevis, Arizona starts another walk-on — redshirt freshman linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson. Walk-on Tevin Hood has been in the rotation at nose guard.

Rodriguez is doing what he can.

So, what happened to all those scholarship players on defense over the past five years?

Of the 60:

** Thirteen never played a down because of various reasons (Kenny Barnes, Zander Fabbri, Solomon Koehler, Cordarius Golston, Jonathan Hollins, Ryan Milus, Jackson Powell, Kyle Benson, Josh Robbins, Domonique Petties, Dylan Cozens, Leo Thomas, Brian Wagner).

** Nine have exhausted eligibility (eight junior college transfers, plus DB Robert Golden who never redshirted and started for three seasons).

** Two are on church missions (defensive linemen Aiulua Fanene and Saneilia Fuimaono).

** Two are playing at other four-year schools (Golston and R.J. Young).

** Two weren’t helping on defense and were moved to offense during the season (defensive lineman Jowyn Ward and end/outside linebacker Dame Ndiaye).

By my count, Arizona had a mere 24 scholarship defenders in the spring — and then lost five of those potential starters/key players before the season-opener. They are defensive backs Adam Hall (ACL) and Cortez Johnson (transfer), and linebackers Brian Wagner (left team), David Lopez (left team) and Rob Hankins (concussion).

Rodriguez’s current recruiting class of 26 players is split evenly between offense and defense, although he says future classes are going to have to tilt more toward defense. Given some guys who will have position flexibility on offense, he said he might get up to 47 or 48 defensive players on scholarship.

“If we do our job recruiting and developing we will never be in this situation again,” he said. “We will never be in the situation where we are playing guys truly before they’re ready to play.”

Here is a look at the past five years of Arizona recruiting on defense (asterisk denotes still on team):

Player Pos. Yr. Status
*Dominique Austin DL Fr. Little-used before this year; out with injury after starting 4 games.
Kenny Barnes DE Fr. Quit the team in the summer of 2009 after redshirting.
Zander Fabbri LB Fr. After concussion in ’08 camp, eventually had to give up football.
Robert Golden CB Fr. A three-year starter at S and CB, and now a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Solomon Koehler DT Fr. Moved to O-line late in 2008 as a redshirt; was gone a year later.
Sterling Lewis LB Jr. Started 15 games in two seasons, making 97 tackles.
*Chris Merrill DT Fr. Mostly a deep reserve through his career; 13 total tackles.
Vuna Tuihalamaka LB Jr. Started every game in 2009, with 72 tackles, 5.5 for loss.
*Jowyn Ward DT Fr. Saw spot duty (11 tackles) for three years; moved to OG in ’12.
R.J. Young LB Fr. Transferred after 2010 to La.-Monroe, leads team in tackles.
*Mark Watley DB Fr. Made 27 tackles last season but hasn’t seen field much in 2012.
Marcus Benjamin DB Jr. Had 10 career tackles in two seasons.
Trevor Erno LB Fr. Redshirted, barely played in 2010, left team in spring 2011.
*Jake Fischer LB Fr. Has come back well from ACL injury, leading team with 80 tackles.
Cordarius Golston LB Fr. Redshirted then went to a JC. Is at Baylor (5 tackles in ’12).
Adam Hall Ath Fr. Promising S derailed by ACL injuries; not with the team any more.
Jonathan Hollins DT Jr. Redshirted in 2009 and left the team in 2010 fall camp.
Ryan Milus DB Fr. Speedster never enrolled, opting to run track at ASU instead.
C.J. Parish LB Jr. Turned into a DE last season and led team with three sacks.
Jackson Powell DE Fr. Left the program after redshirting in his first season.
*Derrick Rainey Ath Fr. Is in Arizona’s three-man rotation at CB; two starts this year.
*Sione Tuihalamaka DT Fr. Has 22 starts in past three seasons with 60 career tackles.
*Taimi Tutogi DE Fr. After three years on offense, is helping as a third-down DE.
*Justin Washington DE Fr. Injuries, suspension followed productive 2010 season.
Kyle Benson LB Fr. Never played after redshirting and leaving team after 2011 spring.
Derek Earls LB Jr. Two-year starter led Cats with 74 tackles last season.
Aiulua Fanene DL Fr. Had eight tackles last season before leaving on a Mormon mission.
*Marquis Flowers S Fr. Former S has 68 tackles, 9.5 for loss, as an OLB in 2012.
Saneilia Fuimaono DL Fr. Started twice with 7 tackles in 2011 before taking Mormon mission.
Jourdon Grandon DB Fr. Moved into starting role at S this season and has made 54 tackles.
*Jonathan McKnight CB Fr. A starter after missing 2011 because of ACL injury.
*Willie Mobley DL So. Ohio State transfer has had modest impact; 16 tackles in 2012.
*Dan Pettinato DE Fr. Not a pass-rush demon, but has started the past five games.
*Shaq Richardson CB Fr. Arrived in August 2010 after being released from UCLA scholie.
Josh Robbins S Fr. Gave up football after missing 2011 because of a back injury.
*Kirifi Taula DT Fr. Was in the playing rotation all season until recent shoulder injury.
Mohammed Usman DE Jr. Started seven games last season as a senior, making one sack.
Paul Vassallo LB Jr. Started all 25 of his games at UA, finishing with 172 tackles.
*Tra’Mayne Bondurant CB Fr. Emerged at mid-season last year; has 11.5 TFLs in 2012.
*Lamar De Rego DL Jr. Has had a minimal impact, last season and this year.
*Reggie Gilbert DE Fr. Has provided better QB pressure lately with 2.5 sacks this year.
Rob Hankins LB Fr. Forced to give up football this fall because of concussion issue.
*Hank Hobson LB Fr. Limited by shoulder problems, has 14 tackles in backup duty.
Cortez Johnson DB Fr. Physical CB/S left team in spring, transferred to Oklahoma.
David Lopez LB Jr. Summer signee in 2011; left team in summer of 2012.
*Dame Ndiaye DE Fr. Athletic, but still very raw; was moved to TE during the season.
Domonique Petties LB Fr. Did not qualify and is playing at Northeast Oklahoma A&M.
*Jamar Allah CB Fr. Has mostly played on special teams as a freshman.
*Wayne Capers Jr. Ath Fr. Has been a backup to Bondurant at Spur safety; has three tackles.
*Dakota Conwell LB Fr. Primary role has been on special teams, but he does have a sack.
Dylan Cozens DE Fr. Second-round pick of Philadelphia Phillies opted for pro baseball.
*C.J. Dozier LB Fr. Early-enrollee had spring flashes but has played in just 5 games.
*Cody Ippolito LB Fr. Has played on special teams this season.
*Kyle Kelley DE Fr. Coaches a bit tempted to play him, but his redshirt is intact.
*Anthony Lopez Ath Fr. Another freshman who has been needed on special teams.
*Dwight Melvin DT Fr. Is redshirting; from same HS as Reggie Gilbert (Leveen Fairfax).
*William Parks DB Fr. Has seen backup and special teams duty, making six tackles.
*Yamen Sanders S Fr. A freshman DB the Wildcats are managing to redshirt.
Leo Thomas S Fr. Went home to San Antonio after only a day or so of fall camp.
Brian Wagner LB Gr. Akron transfer was nation’s top returning tackler; quit in summer.
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