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Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Arizona's defense has some questions to answer

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com



TUCSON, Ariz. -- Derek Earls is learning. Sometimes the hard way.

For example: Black car, black leather seats are great fun in his home state of Minnesota or in North Dakota where he played junior college football. Down in Tucson, where he now plays linebacker for Arizona, black car and black leather seats are bad come summertime. Sometimes very bad.

"You touch anything and it burns," Earls said.

The heat has turned up on Earls and the Wildcats rebuilding defense. Nick Foles and the offense, a skilled, veteran unit, have been gashing their defensive teammates most of camp. While things have gotten better of late, it remains clear that the difference between a good and great season in Tucson is going to be how quickly the defense finds itself.

"It's about playing fast and violent," coach Mike Stoops said. "When you are apprehensive -- 'Am I seeing things right; am I feeling things right' -- I think you're just cautious. That makes you play slower and less physically. It's just a matter of getting comfortable, trusting your instincts and playing a disciplined brand of football."

The Wildcats, who open at Toledo on Friday, only have four returning starters on defense. Most pressing: Both defensive tackles and all three linebackers have to be replaced.

Yes, a questionable up-the-middle defense is particularly vulnerable to a power running game, and that vulnerability then opens up opportunities over the top when a defense is forced to lean forward anticipating the run. For the returning starters, who are used to playing for one of the best units in the Pac-10, preseason practices haven't always been a joy.

"It's real frustrating," said defensive end Ricky Elmore of losing the practice battles with the offense. "They keep doing the same simple plays, draws or leads, that we usually stop. But it's just experience. Once the guys get gametime experience and start to really understand their position on the field -- their technique -- it's going to change."

Foles and the offense have no interest in making the defense, which also is breaking in new co-coordinators Tim Kish and Greg Brown, feel better about itself.

"You can never feel sorry for the defense," Foles said. "That's not what you do on offense. What you want to do every time you have the ball is you just want to shove it down their throats until they stop you. That makes them better."

So that's the bad news. The good news is this: Elmore and fellow end Brooks Reed may be the best tandem in the conference. And the secondary again looks good with cornerbacks Trevin Wade and Robert Golden leading the charge, as well as an infusion of impressive young talent.

If the Wildcats can stop the run, they might be OK.

Toledo is no gimme. The Rockets ranked 13th in the nation in total offense in 2009 (438 yards per game).

"This first game will be a good test," Stoops said. "They do a good job on offense. They move the ball and move you around. We will know where we stand pretty quickly."

A date with Iowa lies ahead on Sept. 18. A win versus the Hawkeyes would certainly announce the Wildcats as Pac-10 contenders.

The offense is going to score. The question is will it spend the whole season having to pick up the D? That's certainly not the way Stoops, who cut his coaching teeth building top-flight defenses, likes to look at things.

"No matter how good your offense is it always comes down to getting stops," he said.