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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

One Key Spot Still Unfilled at Arizona

Rich Rodriguez has been making the rounds, glad-handing here, making speeches there, but has been able to squeeze four coaching hires into his busy schedule, three on the offensive side of the ball. It’s the hires most expected: Calvin Magee, who spent a decade with Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan, will share coordinator duties with Rod Smith, who spent four years under Rodriguez; another former assistant, Tony Dews, will coach the receivers; and Tony Gibson, another longtime assistant, will coach the Arizona secondary in an as-yet undisclosed capacity. There are no surprises here, just comfort.

The biggest hire still looms. If Rodriguez learned nothing else from his disappointing stay in Ann Arbor, it’s that nothing beats delegating responsibility: not a coach-as-C.E.O., Rodriguez needs a steady hand to control the defensive side of the ball while he devotes his time and energy to developing Arizona’s offensive potential.

No Greg Robinson and no Scott Shafer — not that Rodriguez would hire either one, or that Shafer, given time, couldn’t have turned around the Michigan defense after a dreadful, record-setting 2008 season. Rodriguez needs a do-everything, proven college coach who can effectively serve as his associate, if not in name then in action.

Of course, there’s one name that looms larger than most: Jeff Casteel, once Rodriguez’s defensive mastermind at West Virginia, now playing the same role for Dana Holgorsen in Morgantown. Casteel didn’t follow Rodriguez to Michigan, opting instead to stay on under Bill Stewart, and it’s easy to pinpoint that decision as the moment the thread begin to unravel for Rodriguez and the Wolverines.

It’s an overly simple explanation for Rodriguez’s struggles in the Big Ten. To be honest, there’s no way to project that Casteel would have put together a similarly aggressive and productive defense at Michigan as he did at West Virginia. All you have to go on his reputation and history of success, though that might be enough.

But Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense might have struggled in Ann Arbor; Robinson’s 3-3-5 defense sure struggled, it should be said. This sort of defense is better suited for more finesse-based offenses, not the physical sorts of the Big Ten. Casteel’s defense, one could say, would fit the Pac-12 like a glove.

So can Rodriguez reel back in the one who got away? And is the dearth of defensive hires — outside of Gibson, a legacy — due to the fact that Rodriguez is waiting for Casteel or a signal that he’ll allow whomever he signs as coordinator pick and choose the majority of his lieutenants?

The first scenario is a clear win: Casteel would immediately join Monte Kiffin and Nick Aliotti among the Pac-12’s premier defensive coordinators. Bringing in a Casteel would not only give Arizona some clout in a conference heavy on offense, short on defense, but might also help the Wildcats overcome what could be a rocky debut in Rodriguez’s offense.

The second scenario, where Rodriguez will give carte blanche — in hiring, at least — to whomever he hires as coordinator, is also promising. Arizona can only hope that his failures at Michigan have opened Rodriguez’s eyes when it comes to his own coaching strengths and weaknesses.

Obviously, Rodriguez is going to devote himself to the offensive side of the ball. Like Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, he’ll keep his eyes on the game while buried in his play chart, always looking ahead to the next series. What he needs is a right-hand man, his Casteel, and the search should begin with, well, Casteel.

And based on the events at Michigan, it’s probably not a stretch to say that nothing will impact Rodriguez’s tenure at Arizona more than this hire. The search should begin with Casteel, but it doesn’t have to end there: Arizona and Rodriguez can still hit the ground running in 2012, but it’ll take a thorough and disciplined search for the right kind of coordinator — one who can take control of the defense, much like Casteel did for Rodriguez with the Mountaineers.

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  1. Matt Rob says:

    Do you think Casteel will leave WV for Arizona? I can’t see it happening. He didn’t leave for a job at Michigan, and his finesse defense should work equally well against the likes of Okie State and the rest of the pass-heavy Big 12.

  2. Cromulent says:

    Sure, GERG’s 3-3-5 wasn’t good. But running a 3-3-5 wasn’t his idea. His first season in AA they ran a 4-3 Under. Not sure why, since a big part of the reason Shafer was canned had to do with formation. Shafer preferred a 4-3 and RR the 3-3-5.

    Then in 2010 the change was made. I’m guessing that was due to the loss of Brandon Graham and the emergence of Mike Martin. But no one knows for sure.

    Back to Shafer: much of the defensive problems in ’08 can be laid not at his feet but RR’s. The big disaster that year was the 49-42 loss, at *home*, to a Purdue team just playing out the string in Joe Tiller’s swan song. Purdue had injury issues – don’t they every year? – and started a kid at QB who hadn’t played the position in HS and didn’t even take a snap in practice until a month before.

    RR must have won an argument with Shafer, because that afternoon UM played a 3-3-5. With no blitzing. They were picked apart.

    The D in AA was RR’s fault. Not Shafer, not GERG. Some blame can go to the assistants. Jay Hopson was awful, and Tony Gibson is the worst secondary coach in the nation.

  3. Andrew says:

    Some Love for Aliotti! Awesome

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