Addition by subtraction for Arizona defense

August, 22, 2008
8/22/08
7:03
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona strong safety Cam Nelson is a polite, mostly soft-spoken Texan, but he doesn't hem and haw and soft sell when asked why a talented Wildcats defense was so mediocre in 2007.

"A lot of people looking from the outside-in thought we were going to have a good defense, which we should have," he said. "But there were a lot of selfish things going on on the defense, and people weren't playing hard every snap. Everybody was looking out for themselves. We looked for [CB] Antoine Cason and [LB] Spencer Larsen to make all the plays and it just didn't come together like we thought it would."

That defense gave up nearly 27 points per game, despite the presence of four NFL draft picks. With Nelson just one of three starters back -- linebacker Ronnie Palmer and free safety Nate Ness are the other two -- most would project an even more challenging year.

Nelson said everyone has a right to their own opinion, even one that will be as wrong as that one.

"We've got a lot of new faces who play hard and play every snap and want to learn and have been waiting their turn," he said. "We'll prove ourselves as the season starts."

He ticks off a list of just about every starter on the defense, not to mention a few backups, talking about playing hard and fast and being hungry.

Still, he admits, "We haven't done anything yet."

That's why much of the commentary on the team starts with the notion that the Wildcats veteran offense will need to carry the defense early. And with 10 starters back from a unit that set a number of school passing records, topped by quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver "Money" Mike Thomas and tight end Rob "Big Freak" Gronkowski, it's not hard to imagine a lot of points on the board. (Nicknames courtesy of Nelson).

"We've got a lot of weapons on offense," Nelson said.

Nelson admitted that the players are keenly aware of the pressure on coach Mike Stoops to win now. The general feeling is the Wildcats need to reach a bowl game for Stoops to retain his job. 

"He tells us to not worry about it and just go out and play," Nelson said. "We hear it on the news, though. We just try not to pay attention to it. We need to go out and give it our all and win games so he can stay here and can be our coach for the next season."

Nelson, a junior from Dallas, said he's watch Stoops grow as a coach, pointing to Stoops' improved demeanor on the sidelines. Stoops has been known for his wild gesticulations during play and his occasional berating of players and officials within view of television cameras.

Nelson said Stoops has become more accessible to his players. 

"One thing that he did this year -- and me and Nate [Ness] asked him to -- is he got more in-tune with the defense," Nelson said. "That's what I think is going to be a big key for us on the defense."

Stoops was widely considered one of the nation's best defensive coordinators when he coached under his big brother, Bob, at Oklahoma. So his greater involvement with the defense likely will be a good thing.

One thing Nelson won't bite on is talking smack about rival Arizona State.

"There's not too much I can say about Arizona State because they've beaten us the last two years [three actually]," Nelson said. "We played them close but just couldn't finish. But we respect them."

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