- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- We're going to be charitable. We will merely call Arizona's 2011 defense awful and opine that it offered little to no resistance to opposing offenses. We won't try to be colorful or mocking. We will only further note that it wouldn't be surprising if the collective secretly wanted to conduct postgame interviews in French.
It's not just the big picture -- 460.5 yards per game, worst in the Pac-12, and 35.4 points per game, 107th in the nation. It's the details, such as surrendering 6.6 yards per play. Only five teams in the nation were worse. Or permitting opposing passers to complete 66 percent of their throws, another worst in the conference. Or grabbing 16 turnovers, second fewest in the conference. Or recording 10 sacks the entire season, which ranked 116th in the nation and, apparently, was the worst sack total in team history.
In the spring of 2011, before this defensive ugliness occurred, former coach Mike Stoops told the Pac-12 blog that his two best defensive players were linebacker Jake Fischer -- "heart and soul of our defense," Stoops said -- and cornerback Jonathan McKnight -- "our best cover guy," Stoops said.
So, yes, when both blew out their knees in advance of the season, it was not unreasonable to see this coming, at least some of it.
It is easy to look at the Wildcats' defense heading into 2012 and see plenty of "Uh, oh." While seven starters are back, there are far more questions than answers, particularly with the front seven. Oh, and there's a new, 3-3-5 scheme to learn.
Expect some growing pains. New coach Rich Rodriguez certainly seems to.
"I wish I could be more definitive," Rodriguez said when asked about his depth chart up front Wednesday. "It's such a fluid situation. We have a lot of 'ors' and 'ifs' on the defensive line. We've got enough bodies, though."
But if you want to pitch this thing forward in a positive way, the story would go like this: 1. McKnight and Fisher are both back and ready to start against Toledo on Sept. 1; 2. A 3-3-5 scheme plays into the Wildcats' strength -- the secondary; 3. The move of 6-foot-3, 221-pound Marquis Flowers from safety to linebacker might end up proving to be inspired; 4. As might the dual role of 260-pound fullback Taimi Tutogi doubling as a pass-rush specialist.
While Rodriguez is from the Lou Holtz school of talking to the media -- pooh pooh your talent, be colorful, reveal almost nothing -- the Wildcats players believe the defense will surprise some folks. After a couple of scrimmages in which they were dominated by the offense, they say the defense has been stepping up.
"The chemistry is coming along well, everybody is coming together and trusting one another," McKnight said.
McKnight, the brother of former USC running back Joe McKnight, is a good place to start. If he stays healthy, he could become one of the conference's best cover men.
"Nobody is going to throw at him," center Kyle Quinn said. "He's a lockdown guy."
Quinn also said the new scheme is creative at creating pressure, and aggressive at creating turnovers.
"They can make plays," he said. "They are a big-play defense."
That might be where the Wildcats' defense grabs hold. It won't be able to dominate up front. But if the sack and turnover numbers go up, the unit might be able to provide at least reasonably solid support for what could be an explosive offense.
And going from awful to decent could get this team to a bowl game.