UA football: Coaches' chemistry is falling into place

2012-01-12T00:00:00Z 2013-09-17T16:20:27Z UA football: Coaches' chemistry is falling into placeRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The Arizona Wildcats rose to prominence 20 years ago behind a swarming flex defense.

Wednesday, they returned - in spirit, at least - to their football roots.

Call it the Desert Stack.

The UA hired West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and two of his Mountaineers colleagues Wednesday to implement the same 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense that helped win this year's Orange Bowl. David Lockwood will coach the Wildcats' cornerbacks, and Bill Kirelawich will handle the defensive ends.

A fourth assistant, Spencer Leftwich, was introduced as the UA's tight ends coach. He spent one season at Pitt, where he worked alongside three coaches currently on the Wildcats' staff.

UA coach Rich Rodriguez said Wednesday that the mass defection to Tucson shows that the program has pull. Kirelawich spent 32 seasons at West Virginia, and Casteel just finished his 11th season there. Lockwood is a former Mountaineers defensive back who spent two stints coaching at his alma mater.

"It says an awful lot about the U of A," Rodriguez said Wednesday night from Casino del Sol, where he was speaking to participants in next week's Casino del Sol College All-Star Game. "Like I've been saying, this is a destination place."

Rodriguez has known three of the four newest assistants for years; the fourth, Leftwich, was vouched for by UA coaches Tony Gibson, Tony Dews and Calvin Magee.

All of Arizona's new hires accepted jobs without visiting Tucson. Rodriguez will introduce them at a news conference Friday.

"The chemistry part and knowing each other is important," Rodriguez said. "But the most important part is getting guys who can coach and can develop (players) and can recruit. All these guys can do that."

Arizona's new defense marks a departure from former coach Mike Stoops' 4-3, NFL-inspired system. Casteel's scheme features three down linemen, three linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks. The linebackers position themselves behind the defensive linemen, allowing the safeties to freelance depending on how aggressive the defense call is. Coaches can put at least eight defenders in the "box" on any given play.

"That's the key," said Gibson, who will coach safeties with Lockwood on staff. "We want to be able to confuse the quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. We want to give guys different looks, and be able to do that with eight guys on their feet and blitzing.

"It's different; that's what we like about it. I don't know if anybody in the Pac-12 runs it."

They don't. And Arizona, which has a glut of athletic safeties and is shorthanded on the defensive line, seems to be a perfect fit for the new scheme.

Both Rodriguez and Casteel helped popularize the 3-3-5 while at West Virginia. The swarming, speedy defense was the coaches' counter to the spread attacks that were popular throughout the Big East Conference at the time. The Mountaineers borrowed heavily from both Wake Forest, which ran the defensive scheme a decade ago, and from Lou Holtz's South Carolina teams.

However, Rodriguez bristled at the idea of Arizona running a "system" defense.

"I like the scheme, but that's so overrated," he said. "You'll see us in a three-man front, a 3-4 front and a four-man front. You have to have a philosophy. More than anything, these guys can teach or develop it."

Casteel spent the last nine years as West Virginia's defensive coordinator; before that, he served two years as the Mountaineers' co-coordinator and defensive line coach. Casteel coached defensive ends at UTEP in 2000, his first - and, before Wednesday, only - foray into the West.

The hires, which the Star first reported Tuesday night, capped an arduous 51-day hiring process. Rodriguez initially hoped to have a staff in place by mid-December, a timetable that was moved back nearly a full month while he waited for Casteel to make up his mind. All four of the UA's newest assistants coached in bowl games last week. When the games were over, Rodriguez - and Arizona - struck.

"I tried not to be disruptive of that deal," Rodriguez said. "You always wait until the end, and then you have to work pretty quickly once the bowls are over. … The last few days have been pretty busy."

On StarNet: Ryan Finley will keep you updated on the UA football team and the coaching staff with his blog at:

azstarnet.com/finley

that's special

Arizona's new special teams coach should be familiar to everyone on staff.

"It's all of us," coach Rich Rodriguez said, "including me."

Assistant Tony Gibson will serve as the Wildcats' defensive special teams coach, meaning he'll handle the punt block, field goal block and kickoff teams. Spencer Leftwich, who was hired Wednesday to coach tight ends, will handle punts, field goals and kickoff returns. Rodriguez will oversee all special teams, which were problematic the last two years under former coach Mike Stoops.

Rodriguez said, "I'm involved in every special team."

Ryan Finley

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