Too early to judge defense

The season has not started yet, but there are already concerns about the defense. Read on to see what they are, if they are justified, and more.

With just two weeks until the kickoff of the 2012 college football campaign, there is a sense that Arizona Wildcats are nowhere near the world of contenders and the upcoming season is going to be long and painful.

Early indications are that the offense is still developing and the defense is still light-years away from being at the level the coaching staff wants.

But what does that all really mean anyway?

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Despite what Rich Rodriguez has said regarding the development of his new team this offseason, he still has very high expectations for this year's squad.

He may not say it publicly and he may have legitimate concerns across the board, but that will not alter what he expects of his team come September 1.

As for the defense, sure there should be questions and concerns from the fan-base, that is only natural. But take a step back, look at the big picture and realize who is running the defense.

When people discuss the shortcomings of Rich Rodriguez' tenure at the University of Michigan, the individuals who defend him are quick to point out that he wasn't able to convince the brass at UM to pony up the funds to lure defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from West Virginia. That's a fair point to make when you look at Casteel's history.

History indicates that Casteel produces some of the best defenses in the country, often seeing his groups finish in the top-20 in total yards allowed nationally. Sure, there is a slight talent discrepancy, but the cupboards are far from bare for Casteel.

There is some concern regarding personnel, or lack there of, in the 3-3-5 scheme but those concerns may not really be warranted. UA does have questions marks at certain positions and depth issues at others, but the players who earn playing time shouldn't have too many out-of-the-ordinary issues with transitioning to the new scheme.

This is not to say there will not be hiccups along the way. To be frank, the early part of the season could be ugly for the defense, but there will be marked improvement for the unit – much like the offensive line showed in 2011 – by the end of the season.

Take a player like Tra'Mayne Bondurant. He only played a handful of games and performed beyond the expectations anyone set upon him. What is even more impressive is that he did so in such a short period of time and played out of position.

The 3-3-5 may suit him better than the traditional 4-3 scheme UA utilized under Mike Stoops. Assuming he can grab hold of the "bandit" position, he could flourish.

The role asks him to be more of a rover, which is essentially what he did a season ago, but the new scheme is actually designed for a player of Bondurant's skill set.

He showed he can disrupt an offense in the backfield and make a big impact in the secondary versus the pass. When you break down what Bondurant brings to the field, the 3-3-5 actually seems like a natural fit.

This is just one example of a player who could benefit from the switch. The system could also be accommodating to a linebacker like Jake Fischer, who is an above-average athlete for his size and a strong all-around linebacker, or a defensive back like Jonathan McKnight, a player with a good mix of size, athleticism and speed at corner.

Don't forget another very important factor for the defense: The return of the injured players from a season ago. There may be no Adam Hall in 2012, but the return of both Fischer and McKnight are going to be very important for the defense.

Their talent alone is a boost for the squad and the way they fit into Casteel's scheme will be a big part of their success this season.

Fischer should be one of the leaders on defense and is the best linebacker on the roster heading into the campaign. What he brings should benefit fellow linebackers Shadow Williams, Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins; as well as the youth behind them.

That's not to mention the production he will bring to the field. There is a certain wait-and-see approach many are taking with Fischer due to his ACL injury in 2011, but all indications is that he is prepared to not only bounce back to form, but show significant improvement in production on the field.

McKnight's return just adds to the competition at cornerback. There isn't a question regarding his raw talent, but he has to prove it when the games count and he hasn't had the opportunity to do so yet.

Luckily the Wildcats have experienced veterans in the secondary and those players should only bring the best out of McKnight and vice versa.

There is no way to avoid the concerns surrounding Arizona's defense because they are warranted. The concern regarding the defensive line, as well as the lack of depth at linebacker and safety are enough to make certain fans wince.

However, there are pieces in place to make fans think twice before disregarding the defensive potential the Wildcats' possess.

Casteel's presence combined with the improvement and return of several key players should provoke some intrigue in the defense rather than fear.

There may be some rough patches in the early going, but as the season progresses, fans may be a bit surprised with just how far the group has come.

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