With the second round of recruiting for 2020 all but complete, it’s clear where the Arizona Wildcats have focused their attention since December.
It’s all about upgrading the defense.
That effort actually began during the 2019 season, when Kevin Sumlin fired three defensive assistants. He has overhauled the staff and scheme on that side of the ball, and the composition of Arizona’s recent recruiting haul reflects that.
The Wildcats signed six players during national signing day Wednesday — four who play on defense, including three front-seven defenders. Arizona also is considered the favorite for Canadian defensive lineman Paris Shand, who is expected to announce his college choice this weekend with his family in Toronto.
If you include graduate transfer Aaron Blackwell, a defensive tackle, five of Arizona’s eight additions since December are full-time defenders. It’s even possible receiver Brenden Schooler, another grad transfer, will have a role at safety.
Arizona needed to balance its class after announcing only three defensive signees in December. Eight of the early signees primarily play offense. One was a kicker.
Sumlin and his staff were not just looking for prospects who happened to play on defense; they sought specific traits. Just about every UA signee has notable length or speed. Every defensive lineman or edge rusher Arizona has added for 2020 has a listed height of 6-3 or taller. Cornerback Edric Whitley, the surprise addition to the ’20 class, has been timed at 10.72 seconds in the 100-meter dash.
Arizona flipped Whitley from UNLV after losing cornerback Alphonse Oywak to Washington State earlier in the week. Whitley, from Pflugerville, Texas, had visited Ole Miss over the weekend.
The UA was a finalist for a handful of other defensive recruits but could not land them. Defensive lineman Nusi Malani picked Virginia on Wednesday; edge rusher Eddie Watkins chose West Virginia.
The recruiting websites have not been kind to the Wildcats. 247Sports ranks Arizona last in the Pac-12; Rivals has the UA 11th. A year ago, the sites ranked Sumlin’s first full class 11th and ninth in the league, respectively.
(Note: Neither 247Sports nor Rivals includes graduate transfers when assessing class rankings. So even though Blackwell and Schooler count as “initials” for 2020, they don’t count toward the Wildcats’ team ranking.)
The UA’s struggles on the field — 9-15 in two seasons under Sumlin — have made it difficult to sustain momentum in recruiting. Defense has been a particularly troublesome area.
Arizona finished last in the Pac-12 in total defense and points allowed last season. The unit’s poor play, among other issues, prompted Sumlin to fire coordinator Marcel Yates and two others. Sumlin hired Paul Rhoads to run the defense, filling out the defensive staff with two more seasoned coaches: Stan Eggen and Andy Buh.
The defensive metamorphosis is similar to what former UA coach Rich Rodriguez attempted to engineer in 2016 and ’17. Rodriguez changed the entire defensive staff during the 2016 offseason. Sixteen of the 27 players in Arizona’s 2017 signing class played on defense. Nine are still with the team.
Despite those changes, the Wildcats were unable to make significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball. It remains to be seen what impact this offseason’s moves will have.
Here’s a look at the six players Arizona signed Wednesday, including comments from assistant coaches who broke down their film for the UA football Twitter feed:
RB FRANK BROWN JR.
Height/weight: 6-0, 180
School/hometown: Sterling HS (Houston)
Coach says: “Frank is a dynamic football player. He is … arguably the top player in the city of Houston this season. He’s very versatile. Frank can play running back. He can play receiver. … Solid kid. Great family. … He’s gonna be not just a great football player but a great person in the community that people are going to enjoy being around. … You can see his speed. He’s got great vision. Just a kid who can do a lot of different things.” — inside receivers coach Theron Aych
DL SHONTRAIL KEY
Height/weight: 6-6, 262
School/hometown: Morgan Park HS (Chicago)
Coach says: “Big, strong, physical guy that has played just one year of football. … Explosive. Has great length, and that’s what we were trying to add to our football team this season. Great get-off. Very disruptive. … The ceiling is extremely high. … Has a good punch. Still learning to play low with good pad level. But on his get-off, he is low. He’s a physical player, accelerates, redirects, chases the ball. You can see his athleticism. Big guy that has the ability to get his hands up and knock passes down.” — defensive line coach Stan Eggen
OL LEIF MAGNUSON
Height/weight: 6-4, 270
School/hometown: Bethlehem Catholic HS (Canada)
Coach says: “You get a kid that’s athletic, he’s smart, he’s physical. He comes from a football family; his dad played at Washington State when Coach Sumlin was there in the early ’90s. … Really fell in love with the makeup and the character. … His ability to get to the second level … is really remarkable. We want guys that can run, that can play in space. We talk about range all the time — the ability to cover ground, whether you’re reaching on the front side or cutting off. This kid has it. … He’s going to play with an attitude. He’s just getting to the second level and knocking the crap out of a linebacker.” — offensive line coach Kyle DeVan
LB DERICK MOURNING
Height/weight: 6-3, 212
School/hometown: Paetow HS (Katy, Texas)
Coach says: “He’s got great length. … We feel like he’s got a lot of growth potential and with that length can become a big linebacker for us, either inside or outside. … Great speed to play in space and to run things down. That’s one of the things we’re looking for in our linebackers. … He’s got great flexibility … and what we refer to as great bend. He’s got the ability to get under the pads of both running backs and offensive tackles. Great redirect. … A very, very productive player that has an advanced skill set at rushing the passer.” — defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads
LB JABAR TRIPLETT
Height/weight: 6-1, 220
School/hometown: Southern Lab HS (Baton Rouge, La.)
Coach says: “The one thing that really drew me to Jabar was his leadership, not only with the guys currently on his team, but I’ve noticed that too with the guys that are on our team and that he’s trying to help recruit. This guy has got all the tools of some of the greats here. … Very heady player that can come downhill and smack you. He’s the perfect linebacker for me — very soft-spoken, quiet, well-mannered kid off the field, but on the field he is a true football player. He’s physical, he’s tough. Very nasty.” — Aych
CB EDRIC WHITLEY
Height/weight: 5-11, 170
School/hometown: Weiss HS (Pflugerville, Texas)
Coach says: “This cat is cat-quick. Good football twitch. Long speed. Very aware corner. … This guy is going to be a real big steal. … You can never have too much speed in the defensive secondary. … Very good jumping ability, football intelligence, football awareness, knowing where the ball is going even before it’s released from the quarterback’s hand. … It’s big time when you have guys that can locate the ball in the air and have enough confidence to come off their guy and go make a play wherever the ball is at. We all know that is the key to the game.” — secondary coach Demetrice Martin