Arizona Wildcats spring football preview, Pt. 5: Run defense is biggest challenge on Fisch’s toughness agenda

Defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell will return in 2021, giving the Wildcats a veteran presence on the interior. He and Trevon Mason have played a combined 40 Division I games.

Jedd Fisch wants to bring toughness back to Arizona Wildcats football. On the field, his plan revolves around three basic principles:

  • Run the ball
  • Stop the run
  • Cover kicks

Even in the darkest of times, Arizona has run the ball effectively — even leading the Pac-12 in rushing on occasion.

Aside from the opening kickoff against Arizona State last season — a breakdown of epic proportions — the UA has been decent in kick coverage.

Stopping the run? It’s been a minute.

You have to go all the way back to 2010, when the Pac-12 was the Pac-10, to find the last time the Wildcats ranked in the top half of the conference in run defense. They ranked last each of the past two seasons; last year, Arizona allowed 270.6 rushing yards per game — third most in the nation.

So there’s plenty of work to do. But there’s also cause for optimism.

Two experienced defensive tackles are back thanks to the NCAA not counting last season toward anyone’s eligibility. Reinforcements are on the way at other key positions via the 2021 signing class and the transfer portal.

“We’ve been able to find guys in the front that either are here currently, that we brought in to join the party, that are still planning on coming in to join the party,” Fisch said.

“We’ve talked about from the beginning: What’s toughness? Toughness is being able to run the ball, stop the run, cover kicks. If we’re gonna have that physical and mental toughness about ourselves, we have to be able to do those three things. And that’s a huge focus for us.”

That leads to the last of our five pressing questions about the Wildcats entering spring practice, which begins Tuesday afternoon:

Does Arizona have the pieces in place to vastly improve its run defense?

It looks promising on paper.

As mentioned, two interior defenders are back who otherwise would have moved on. Aaron Blackwell and Trevon Mason both are listed at 298-plus pounds on the spring roster. Combined, they have appeared in 40 Division I games and have made 112 tackles.

Add rising sophomore Kyon Barrs to that pair, and Arizona has a solid foundation up front.

Now, it’s fair to be skeptical about those particular pieces, because they were on the field when the Wildcats were getting run over last season. And the group lost its top-graded defensive tackle in Roy Lopez, who’s prepping for the NFL draft.

But keep in mind: Football is the ultimate team sport. Those defensive linemen didn’t have the support they needed to minimize those runs.

Arizona suffered significant losses to the transfer portal at linebacker and safety. Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler and Scottie Young Jr. would have formed the foundation of last year’s defense. And they weren’t the only ones who left.

Without them, the Wildcats sorely lacked experience and depth. Linebacker Anthony Pandy sometimes had to play out of position. He was mostly surrounded by freshmen and walk-ons. Arizona’s safeties took poor tackling angles, exposing a lack of speed.

Fisch and his staff addressed the linebacker issue through the portal, adding Treshaun Hayward from Western Michigan and Jerry Roberts from Bowling Green. Neither will be here in time for spring ball, but they’re both experienced, plug-and-play additions. They should have little trouble getting acclimated once they arrive in June.

Hayward and Roberts each were listed at 235 pounds on last year’s rosters. It’s easy to envision them lining up alongside Pandy and enabling him to move back, full time, to his natural weak-side linebacker spot.

More ’backers are coming via the freshman class. In the meantime, defensive coordinator Don Brown and linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski can work with whoever’s on hand to implement new terminology and techniques.

At safety, Arizona added Gunner Maldonado from Northwestern via the portal. He will participate in spring practice, and it’d be surprising if he didn’t earn one of the two starting jobs.

Veteran Christian Young, who missed most of last season because of injuries, brings physicality to the position. And at least four freshmen also are on the way who are ticketed to play safety or the “Viper” spot (hybrid safety-linebacker).

Even more significant, the safeties now are being coached by Chuck Cecil, one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs in the history of the sport.

His counterpart on the defensive line is Ricky Hunley. If those two ex-Wildcats can’t instill the run-stuffing toughness Fisch is seeking, who can?