Gimino: Rodriguez hits reset button on Arizona's defense - Tucson News Now

Gimino: Rodriguez hits reset button on Arizona's defense

Former Arizona Wildcats defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. (Source: Univerity of Arizona) Former Arizona Wildcats defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. (Source: Univerity of Arizona)
Jeff Casteel (far left) coached the 2014 national defensive player of the year, Scooby Wright. Also pictured: Rich Rodriguez (middle right) and Phil Wright. (Photo courtesy Phil Wright) Jeff Casteel (far left) coached the 2014 national defensive player of the year, Scooby Wright. Also pictured: Rich Rodriguez (middle right) and Phil Wright. (Photo courtesy Phil Wright)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez has directed some of the most explosive offenses in school history in the past four seasons.

The defense, mostly, has been a mess.

After an injury-filled season in which the defense allowed 466.8 yards per game (114th nationally out of 127 teams) and 35.8 points per game (107th), Rodriguez is going all in on changes on the defensive side of the ball.

The school announced Monday, Jan. 4 that defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich won't be back. Before Christmas, cornerbacks coach David Lockwood was let go, with Rodriguez promoting Jahmile Addae from an administrative role within the program.

As of now, safeties coach Matt Caponi is Arizona's only returning defensive coach.

With Monday's news, Rodriguez could essentially blow up the entire defensive strategy and start fresh.

Casteel's unusual 3-3-5 odd stack defense was a flash point of criticism whenever anything went wrong on defense, but the problems on that side of the ball reside more with recruiting than scheme - or at least a combination of both.

Rodriguez's staff unearthed one of the all-time sleepers with two-star linebacker Scooby Wright, but it's quite possible that four years of recruiting won't turn up another NFL player on Arizona's defense. No scheme is going to work without the kind of all-conference talent Arizona has been missing.

Addae, a 33-year-old who has on-field coaching experience, was the first step toward a younger, more dynamic defensive staff. Kirelawich, 68, is likely to retire. Neither he nor Casteel, who has more than 30 years of coaching experience, was considered an ace recruiter.

Casteel made $660,000 last season, the highest paid Arizona assistant, according to a USA TODAY salary database.

These coaching staff changes come about a month away from Signing Day, and Rodriguez has said he will do spring ball early, starting in February. The new coaches will quickly have a lot to do.

Casteel was on RichRod's first staff at West Virginia in 2001, promoted to co-defensive coordinator (with now-Arizona State coach Todd Graham) in 2002 before becoming the sole coordinator in 2003. That's when he began to become one of the nation's leading practitioner of the 3-3-5 scheme, which, in theory, emphasizes speed, flexibility and disguise with its two roving safeties - the Spur and the Bandit.

Rodriguez' inability to lure Casteel with him to Michigan after the 2007 season was considered one of the reasons for his lack of success with the Wolverines. Rodriguez's Michigan defenses got progressively worse, going from 67th nationally to 82nd to 110th before he was fired after the 2010 season.

John U. Bacon, the author of "Three and Out," which recounts Rodriguez's time at Michigan, quotes in his book Mike Parrish, who was a director of football operations at Michigan and joined RichRod at Arizona.

“And if Casteel had joined Rodriguez's staff? Parrish didn't hesitate: 'It would have been completely different.'"

The defense didn't much work at Arizona. It had its moments in 2014 because of Wright's brilliance and timely turnovers, which often offset other deficiencies, as the Wildcats were 78th in scoring defense, allowing 28.2 points per game (the best mark of the RichRod era).

But without turnovers and big plays, Arizona's bend-but-don't-break defense simply broke in 2015, unable to do much from start (525 yards to UTSA) to finish (522 yards to New Mexico).

Former Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer, who manned the middle linebacker position for Casteel's first two seasons, once called the coordinator a "mad genius." Former defensive lineman Tevin Hood took to Twitter to write about Kirelawich: "Kirlav was, and still is, like a father to me." By most accounts, they were popular with their players.

Rodriguez's staff -- which has been filled with long-time loyalists like Casteel and Kirelawich from the West Virginia days -- has basically been one big happy family.

But this is business.

Change happens.

Rodriguez could very well go to a base 4-3 defense, although experienced defensive linemen aren't in abundance on the Arizona roster. Casteel and Rodriguez were never able to sign and develop a Pac-12 level pass rusher from the defensive line, perhaps because of the scheme in which the three down linemen are mostly asked to eat up blocks to free up the linebackers and safeties for the glory-filled big plays.

No matter what he does, Arizona's defense under Rodriguez might never look great in the traditional "counting" stats because the tempo of his offense means more plays for both teams, which inevitably means more yards and points allowed.

Perhaps a more fair way to judge Arizona's defense is yards per play.

The worst mark in school history - 6.59 yards allowed per play - did not come under the Rodriguez/Casteel watch. It came during the 2011 season, when Mike Stoops was fired at the midway point.

Casteel's crew improved that mark to 5.98 in his first season, 5.26 in 2013 (which ranked 37th nationally), but then it crept up to 5.66 (even with Scooby in 2014) and 5.94 this season.

And, with that, it's time to hit the reset button.

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