The Arizona Wildcats are going up against the top five offenses in the Pac-12. Three have a common thread born from the freedom of movement now allowed in college football.
Oregon, Washington and USC all have transfer quarterbacks who have reunited with play callers they’ve worked with in the past.
The Ducks’ Bo Nix — who had 335 yards and three touchdowns in Oregon’s 49-22 win over Arizona last week — is once again working with Kenny Dillingham, who helped Nix earn SEC Freshman honors of the Year at Auburn in 2019.
The Huskies’ Michael Penix Jr. — who will coach Washington against UA on Saturday in Seattle — began his career at Indiana, where current UW coach Kalen DeBoer served as offensive coordinator and QB coach in 2019. Penix pitched for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games as a redshirt rookie that year.
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The Trojans’ Caleb Williams – who will lead USC to Tucson on Oct. 29 after the Wildcats leave next week – spent his freshman year at Oklahoma playing for Lincoln Riley, who is now the USC coach.
All three quarterbacks are thriving at their new schools. Just by watching a movie, UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen can see the connection these QBs have with their callers.
“There is no doubt,” Nansen said Tuesday. “You can see the control with me (audible), they know exactly where they’re going with the plays. It’s easier to manage the game from that point of view – the relationship between the coach and the quarterback for each other. make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Penix ranks second nationally in passing yards with 2,044, behind Mississippi State’s Will Rogers, who Arizona faced in Week 2. Nix ranks 15th in completion rate (70, 4%) and is tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns (eight). Williams has an elite 14-1 TD ratio.
Penix isn’t as much of a threat to run as Nix, but Washington and Oregon’s offenses share a trait that could prove troublesome for Arizona’s struggling defense.
Nansen said the Ducks’ heavy use of shifts and movement led to defensive players being out of position or unsure of their assignments. The Huskies use similar tactics.
Cornerback Treydan Stukes explained why this type of move can be so taxing on a defense.
“When there’s a lot of movement and pullers, the gaps change,” Stukes said. “You have to be ready to adapt on the fly. The game is fast. That’s why it’s hard to always find the exact gap you’re supposed to be in.”
Regarding Penix, who has a TD-INT ratio of 16-4 and a completion rate of 64.8%, Stukes said, “He has a pretty strong arm. He is a good decision maker. He is not reckless. .. it makes it a little different in all your preparations.”
Penix is the second left-handed quarterback Arizona will face in three weeks. The Wildcats limited Colorado’s Owen McCown to 14 of 30 assists.
McCown, a true freshman, was making his second career start. Penix has started 23 games, including 12 under DeBoer.
The Wildcats are making personnel changes on defense after giving up more than 580 yards against Oregon and Cal in three weeks.
Freshman Jacob Manu is now listed as the starter for linebacker “Will.” Nansen said DJ Warnell Jr. will work exclusively at “Star” defensive back this week after playing safety earlier in the season.
Manu has played at least 21 snaps in each of the last four games, according to Pro Football Focus. He made one start, against North Dakota State, in a three linebacker lineup.
Redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage, a converted safety, started the first six games against Will’ backer. Cage has 24 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery, but is Arizona’s lowest-rated defenseman according to the PFF rating system.
Manu, who signed up in June, has continued to impress the coaches during training. He started the season on the scout team.
“Every time I watched practice he was everywhere,” Nansen said. “He has a talent for football.”
Like Cage (6-1, 215), Manu is undersized. He is generously listed at 5-11, 220. Nansen said it didn’t matter because of Manu’s instincts and aggression.
“He was coaching our linemen (despite) dropping a hundred pounds,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “He’s a stallion. I’m delighted to see him play.”
Warnell, a sophomore who transferred from UCLA during the offseason, spent spring training competing at the Star spot. Nansen and his team decided to go with Gunner Maldonado, moving Warnell to safety, where he served as a backup.
But Maldonado struggled. He allowed a team record 23 receptions on 27 targets, per PFF. He also has a missed tackle rate of 34.8%, the highest among AU regulars. (Cage is second at 25.7%.)
Warnell has a team-high four special teams tackles, and he’s played well on point defense.
After playing so many positions — including backup linebacker “Sam” in the 4-3 look — Warnell has a “good feel” for the defensive scheme, Nansen said. The Star position requires both cover and padding ability. It looks like Warnell will have every chance to show he has those skills.
Two other transfers, linebackers Malik Reed and Anthony Solomon, have yet to play defense. Both were thoroughly scrutinized during off-season training. Reed even started the 2021 Finals at Arizona State.
When asked why Reed and Solomon haven’t played, Nansen replied: “I have to make sure they understand their assignments. The best guys are going to play in this program. You can’t just put guys in there. They have to earn their place.”
- DeBoer on Penix’s health after being knocked out late in the ASU game last week: “He’s fine. He was in a bit of pain after the game. I really didn’t know what was wrong when I went out on the court for the first time, and then I got it and (he) just turned the corner real quick. It’s really just one of those things where all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Oh, I think he’ll be fine.” He was really in pain, but he’s fine now.”
- Carroll on Washington’s defense, which has allowed 85 points over the past two weeks: “They’ve got a bunch of defensive ends that all seem like they’re ready for the next level. Big size on the line. They’re playing really aggressive in the secondary. They will give us away (one-to-one) matches, I’m sure. We have to take advantage of it.
- Stukes, who missed most of training camp with a knee injury, hasn’t been as effective on cover as he was a year ago. He allowed a 45.9% completion rate in 2021. He’s at 75% so far this season. “Sometimes you get a 50-50 ball, and it just doesn’t go your way,” Stukes said. “I just have to keep working, keep applying my technique every week in training, and those games will start coming my way.”
Contact sportswriter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or [email protected] On Twitter @michaeljlev