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SWAT duty: Arizona Wildcats’ third-down defense answers the call

Derrick Turituri chases NAU quarterback Kyren Poe on third down. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Turituri chases NAU quarterback Kyren Poe on third down. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The price for last season’s lack of depth on defense was that the Arizona coaches couldn’t do anything with the scheme. The Cats had their hands full, and then some, with their base defense, merely trying to hang on before getting run over.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez’s second year is different.

The Wildcats are still young, but they have more ready-to-go players and a little more speed.

Now, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel can start using the back half of the playbook. His 3-3-5 system thrives on speed and flexibility, and he started to show that off in the season-opening 35-0 victory over NAU.

That was the debut of the defense’s SWAT team — a specialized unit brought in to defend in passing situations.

Arizona allowed the Lumberjacks to convert just 4 of 19 third-down chances, but the SWAT team wasn’t on the field for all those, so you have to break it down with more of a keen eye.

After reviewing the game on TV, I found 11 plays in which SWAT was on the field. Two plays were voided because of penalties (NAU was stopped short of the first down in both cases). Arizona held eight times, and the Lumberjacks converted once, on fourth-and-8. (See chart below).

“Any time we can get pass rushers on the field and cover guys on the field, we like to do it,” said cornerbacks coach David Lockwood.

“It’s an opportunity to get speed on the field. Out here on the West Coast, you better try to match up speed vs. speed.”

Here is how it works:

The base defensive line of Reggie Gilbert, Tevin Hood and Sione Tuihalamaka leave the field. Kirifi Taula comes in at nose guard, with outside linebackers Sir Thomas Jackson and Derrick Turituri playing as defensive ends in the three-man front.

Jackson lined up as a stand-up end vs. NAU. Turituri, a 252-pound true freshman, usually had his hand on the ground, set up on the wide side of the field with one thought filling his head.

“My role is a straight pass rusher,” he said.

“You just have to have a good motor and get to the ball. I love pass rushing. To be able to play so much, it’s a really cool thing as a true freshman. I’m really proud of that. Being on the SWAT team, I love it.”

Arizona also gets quicker in the back end. Sophomore safety Will Parks and true freshman corner Devin Holiday replace linebackers Marquis Flowers and Scooby Wright. Senior Jake Fischer stays at his middle linebacker position, supported by seven defensive backs.

Holiday displaces senior cornerback Shaquille Richardson, who moves to free safety, with free safety Jourdon Grandon moving to Bandit, closer to the line of scrimmage. Lockwood said the coaches made the Holiday-Richardson switch because cornerback is a less mentally taxing position for the freshman, while Richardson can help get everyone lined up and make checks from free safety.

This is the kind of defense Rodriguez, Casteel and crew always deployed in the West Virginia days. They just didn’t have the personnel in 2012.

“When they told us about the SWAT, I think we all got excited for it,” Flowers said.

“I like it. It’s definitely a third-down defense that is going to help us get off the field. That’s what made us play a lot of plays last year; we couldn’t get off the field on third down. I think this year that’s more of a focal point.”

Arizona didn’t call on the SWAT team on every third-and-long, using it sparingly after halftime. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules as to when to use it and when not, with down-and-distance, opponent tendencies and field position being some of the factors.

“It’s kind of a chess game,” Lockwood said. “We got the job done last week, but there’s a bunch of room for improvement.”

While the defense was effective in the first game, the Cats could still experiment with different combinations, starting Saturday night at UNLV. Rodriguez said the coaches aren’t “solidly set on who the 11 are.”

“We need guys to be to able to rush the passer and guys in the back end who can cover,” he said. “Guys who know how to play the ball in the air is a big thing.”

Here is how the SWAT team fared vs. NAU:

Down Yard-line Result
3rd-and-10 UA 22 Rush of 4 yards; play nullified by penalty
3rd-and-20 UA 32 Pass of 7 yards (Sir Thomas Jackson tackle)
3rd-and-11 NAU 42 Pass of 5 yards (Devin Holiday)
3rd-and-11 NAU 49 Rush of 3 yards (Jake Fischer)
3rd-and-5 NAU 38 Pass of 4 yards (Derrick Turituri)
3rd-and-8 NAU 27 Sack by Kirifi Taula; play nullified by penalty
3rd-and-8 UA 45 Rush of 1 yard (Jared Tevis, Taula)
3rd-and-15 UA 37 Interception by Tra’Mayne Bondurant
3rd-and-13 UA 47 Rush of 5 yards (Bondurant, Jackson)
4th-and-8 UA 42 Pass of 16 yards (Shaquille Richardson)
3rd-and-goal UA 19 Sack for loss of 9 yards (Turituri)
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