- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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When history judges the Rich Rodriguez era at Arizona, chances are folks aren't going to look back and say, "Gosh, those RichRod teams were really known for their defense."
And that has more to do with Rodriguez's reputation as an offensive-minded coach than his team's desire to stop the other team from putting up points. Even when we reflect on the Chip Kelly era -- it was known for offense. Not that he didn't have some good defenses (better than most gave Oregon credit for), that's just how perception works.
Still, that doesn't have to sit well with Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. He's not in control of what happens on the other side of the ball. His job is to put his players in position to keep the other team out of the end zone. He wants the Wildcats to be known as a defensive team. And he wants his players to be a bit salty about it.
"I hope they are," Casteel said. "These guys understand that we have to do a better job than we did last year. There were situations where we make a stop, we win a game. We've talked about that and I'm sure they want to be known as a defensive football team. But to do that requires a lot of work and hopefully they'll do that. We want to be a tough, physical football team. And I think the kids want to embrace that."
And while the offense made a huge splash in Year 1 of the Rodriguez era, the defense was often left thanking their offensive brethren for bailing them out week to week. Energy and enthusiasm weren't the issues in 2012, when the Wildcats surrendered a league-worst 499 yards per game and allowed more than 35 points per contest. A lot of it was learning a new scheme. And part of the learning process is knowing when not to make a play. Staying at home and making sure your assignment is covered can be just as valuable to a team's success. Attrition via injury also resulted in the Wildcats throwing true freshmen and walk-ons into situations they probably weren't ready for.
"It's about attention to detail and taking care of your job and playing team defense," Casteel said. "At times last year -- it wasn't that they weren't trying to make plays -- but sometimes it would cause problems because they didn't take care of their responsibilities.
"The kids' energy was good and through the first five or six weeks they played well. We just wore down as the season went on because of a lack of depth. You can point to probably three or four games that we lost because we missed opportunities. If we make a play here or there we have a great season. That's a positive for the kids because they can see that we're close."
Close -- but nowhere near where they need to be. Besides the points and yards allowed, the Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the league in interceptions (10th with 12 interceptions), sacks (12th, 16), red zone defense (9th, 83.9 percent), opponent first downs (12th, 339) and third down defense (9th, 43.7 percent). On the flip side, they improved from 4-8 in 2011, to 8-5 in 2012. They scored wins over Oklahoma State and USC and they won their bowl game.
"This is a business about wins and losses," Casteel said. "There are some numbers that are important to us -- yards per carry, yards per play, turnovers, third down defense. And if you are good at those things then your numbers will be fairly decent. We all would love to have the great numbers. But it's still all about winning and our job is to do what we can to help our team win games."
The good news is that 20 different players who started games last year are returning -- essentially the entire defense is back. With that comes a better understanding of the scheme and another year in the strength and conditioning program. When he first took over, Rodriguez made it a point to call out the physical conditioning of his team. The hope is that with improved conditioning comes improved performance.
"I think we're all a little more comfortable with them as players and they are a little more comfortable with us as coaches than we were this time last year," Casteel said. "At this point it's about getting bigger, stronger and faster. I think we're seeing that. We were a small football team last year. We're not where we want to be. But I'm excited to get them back in the fall and see what we can do."