Arizona DC Johnny Nansen takes blame for run-defense woes, vows to fix them

Arizona safeties Christian Young (5) and Isaiah Taylor (18) tackle California running back DeCarlos Brooks (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
Arizona safeties Christian Young (5) and Isaiah Taylor (18) tackle California running back DeCarlos Brooks (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Allowing 283 rushing yards to North Dakota State with its unorthodox scheme and unwavering devotion to running the ball is one thing.

Yielding 354 the following week against Cal — nearly triple the Golden Bears’ season average — is quite another.

No one understands this better than Johnny Nansen, Arizona’s first-year defensive coordinator. He already has put a plan in place to try to reverse that trend. It starts at the top.

“It’s me,” Nansen said this week. “I gotta make sure I coach better.”

Nansen took the blame for the Wildcats too often being out of position and out of sorts in Berkeley. “Gap integrity” has been a much-discussed concept at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility since then. It’s among many points of emphasis this week as Arizona (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) prepares to host Colorado (0-4, 0-1).

“I didn’t do a good job preparing our guys,” Nansen said. “There were a lot of things that are fixable on tape. We weren’t in the places where we needed to be, and obviously that comes from me. I gotta teach it better. We’ve got to have a better plan moving forward.”

Nansen wants to make things simpler for his players while renewing focus on fundamentals such as tackling and shedding blocks. In other words, “Football School” — part of Nansen’s offseason coaching regimen — has reopened.

Asked whether the mistakes against Cal — which led to two 70-plus-yard touchdown runs by freshman Jaydn Ott — resulted from a lack of discipline, players trying to do too much or something else, Nansen said:

“That’s a question I’ve been battling for the last couple of days. Is it that we’re putting too much on them weekly? You gotta remember, we get 20 hours. There’s 11 personnel they gotta deal with, there’s 12 personnel, there’s 13, there’s different packages. And everything has a different assignment to it. My job is to try and eliminate some of that thinking so they can play faster.”

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Nansen said the Wildcats would be “going back to fundamentals, going back to spring ball” during practice. But there’s only so much that can be done to improve the team’s tackling. The defense won’t be taking ball-carriers to the ground for safety reasons. That’s non-negotiable.

Can you simulate in-game tackling in a practice setting without hitting actual players?

Arizona defensive lineman Jalen Harris (1) tries to get past California offensive lineman Matthew Cindric (73) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
Arizona defensive lineman Jalen Harris (1) tries to get past California offensive lineman Matthew Cindric (73) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

“No, you can’t,” linebacker Jerry Roberts said. “In a drill, it’s more controlled. (In a game) there could be a running back making four or five different cuts before he even goes upfield. So it’s kind of hard to replicate that.”

In lieu of live tackling, Nansen and the defensive staff are emphasizing positioning, angles and players having their eyes in the right place. Nansen said he saw instances in the Cal game where “their eyes were nowhere near where they needed to be.”

It all falls under the umbrella of technique.

“Especially this time of season, guys abandon techniques and play their assignment — trying to play the play instead of defeating your man, being in the (right) gap, using your hands and getting off blocks,” Nansen said. “Whenever you see the ball going to the second level, that means our defensive linemen are not getting off blocks and not using proper technique. So that’s my job to go back this week and try to fix that.”

Arizona has plummeted to 125th in the nation in run defense (228.3 yards/game). The Wildcats are allowing 6.1 yards per rush. (Colorado is last in the country in both categories at 323.2 and 7.0.)

In the first two games, against San Diego State and Mississippi State, Arizona allowed 138 yards per game and 4.2 per carry. In the past two games, those numbers have climbed to 318.5 and 7.7.

“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a lot,” Roberts said of the defense’s struggles at Cal. “We all took our part. It wasn’t our best game.

“We know what type of defense we’re able to be. We’re a top-tier defense, we feel like. We need to figure out everyone doing their job, doing their assignment, their one-eleventh.”

Rotation situation

Another area Nansen is working through this week is trying to create a more substantial player rotation.

Before the season, Nansen said: “I like to play a lot of guys. In college football, you average anywhere from 80 to 90 snaps. So we got to have guys that can play, especially up front. ... I know they’re gonna make mistakes. But that’s our job as coaches to fix the mistakes. So I’m not afraid for them to be in there and make mistakes.”

Arizona safety DJ Warnell Jr. (14) tackles California running back DeCarlos Brooks (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
Arizona safety DJ Warnell Jr. (14) tackles California running back DeCarlos Brooks (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Nansen hasn’t followed through on that plan. Five of Arizona’s six starters in the defensive front have played at least 74% of the Wildcats’ 265 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Three have played over 90%: Roberts (97.7), defensive end Jalen Harris (92.0) and linebacker Kolbe Cage (90.6). Defensive end Hunter Echols (79.6) likely would be above 90% as well if he hadn’t missed the second half of the SDSU game because of injury.

“I gotta do a better job of how to manage their reps,” Nansen said. “You’re probably gonna see a lot of guys playing (against Colorado). I gotta manage their reps, when they get the reps.

“Usually when we get down to the red zone, I’d rather have our best guys in there. That part of the game, we’re working on it right now.”

Nansen is in his first season as a defensive coordinator. He has handled defensive-front substitutions in the past

“Now you’re trying to handle substitution, you’re trying to make corrections, you’re trying to call the game,” Nansen said. “It’s a lot. But my staff and I are fixing it.”

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona DC Nansen takes blame for run-defense woes, vows to fix them