In terms of returning experience, Arizona’s defense has an edge on the offense with a players who combined for 82 starts last season back for 2022.
So what, new defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen thinks.
“There’s no starters on our defense,” Nansen said Thursday after the Wildcats’ second preseason practice. “The best guy is going to play. So now’s the time, every practice we’re out here matters. It counts. And that’s how we’re going to figure out who’s going to play, who’s not.”
If things go according to plan, Nansen hopes to have up to 20 players rotate at the various defensive lineman, edge and linebacker positions, with as many as nine interior linemen getting game snaps. Not leaving the field doesn’t sound like part of the plan, at lost not at the first two levels.
“That would never happen in my defense,” he said. “I like to play a lot of guys. In college football you average anywhere from 80 to 90 snaps, so we got to have guys that could play, especially up front. You look at kids getting hurt because they play so many snaps.”
Last season, Christian Roland-Wallace and Christian Young were the only UA players to play more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps, and that figures to be the case again this fall. Of front-seven Wildcats, only Jalen Harris and Anthony Pandy logged more than 80 percent of the snaps.
Nansen, who coached the defensive line the previous two seasons at UCLA and was on the defensive staff at USC from 2014-19, is stepping in for Don Brown after he left to run the UMass program. Brown was known for being a high-energy coach, and so far Nansen is showing the same to his players.
“He’s fired up,” senior linebacker Jerry Roberts said. “Intensity, intensity, intensity, intensity, and I love him. Every day he tells us, don’t be a yo-yo. What he means by that is, don’t be a guy who will come in one day and be down and then the next day he’ll come with all the info. He said be the same guy every day. And that’s what Coach Nansen does, he’s the same guy every day. He’s gonna challenge me everyday, too.”
Figuring out the inside
In addition to running the defense, Nansen coaches inside linebackers. That’s by far Arizona’s most inexperienced position group on that side of the ball, with more than half the players working those spots either true or redshirt freshmen.
Add in that Roberts and sophomore Malik Reed, the only guys with starting experience, were limited in spring ball because of injury, and figuring out a depth chart has been tough.
“I think we’re still in that process,” Nansen said. “It’s just trying to figure out what the best the puzzle is, trying to fit guys within the system. It’s good to have Jerry back. But there’s so much learning in that group. We’re so young, so it’s my job to get them gelled together.”
Roberts should start at Mike linebacker, assuming he’s 100 percent—he said Thursday he was “150 percent” recovered from a broken leg suffered last November at Washington State. Reed and redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage are the top candidates for the Will job while Nansen said redshirt freshman Ammon Allen is working at “all three positions” including a Sam linebacker spot that was recently installed to complement what’s expected to be a base 4-2-5 alignment.
Back where he belongs
Reed, from Chandler, was the No. 16 prospect in Arizona in the 2020 recruiting class but ended up committing to Wisconsin. He spent one season with the Badgers before entering the NCAA transfer portal and coming to Tucson, where he said Thursday he’d hoped to be all along.
“I wanted to come here out of high school, to be honest, but I didn’t know with the old staff,” Reed said.
He played in 10 games last season for the UA, starting the Territorial Cup and registering a team-high eight tackles. A hamstring injury suffered early in spring impacted him the rest of the way, but after working with strength coach Tyler Owens he feels at full strength.
“They fixed my running stance, so that went a long way,” said Reed, who said being limited in the spring “made me want to play even more so.”
Nansen said Reed was one of the most-improved players during the offseason training program, and Thursday was one of the best days he’s seen from him on the practice field.
“Right after practice, I told him, I said, I need that,” Nansen said. “I need you to be consistent in practice.”
A gamble pays off
Allen and junior special teams standout Dante Smith were placed on scholarship just before preseason camp began. For Allen, it was the fulfillment of a tacit agreement between made he and coach Jedd Fisch during his recruitment a year ago.
“Before I committed here, me and Coach Fisch talked a little bit,” said Allen, a 3-star prospect from Gilbert. “With COVID, the situations with scholarships, there was none available. So they asked if I would be able to walk on this first year and potentially earn a scholarship.”
Despite scholarship offers from Air Force, Army, Eastern Michigan and Navy, per 247Sports, Allen bet on himself by paying his own way for one year. The converted safety appeared in four games on special teams in 2021 but now is in the mix at all linebacker spots.
“It’s hard at times, but still a ton of fun,” Allen said of switching positions. “I had to get my run game, run reads a lot better. I took from safety my pass responsibilities, so that can kind of be easy, but reading the run, reading the alignment, I had to learn that.”
More difficult has been putting on weight. Listed at 215 pounds, after playing high school safety at between 195-200, Allen wants to get up to 225 but the “job” of consuming enough food hasn’t been easy.
“Right now I’m currently eating about like 5500 to 6000 calories a day just to maintain my weight,” he said.