Marcel Yates’ task: Keep the Wildcats’ defense one step ahead of another ‘Air Raid’

October 26, 2017 GMT

In 17 years as a college football coach, Marcel Yates has prepared a defense to stop the Pistol, the Shotgun, the Spread, the Thundering Herd, the Air Raid, and just about everything but the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.

One year, while coaching at Boise State, Yates and the Broncos’ defensive staff didn’t expect much trouble from a Nevada team with a losing record and a quarterback whose name no one could spell or pronounce.

That would be Colin Kaepernick. The freshman passed and ran for 420 yards and five touchdowns. The heavily-favored Broncos exhausted their defense before winning 69-67.

Another year, while the co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Yates appeared to get a break in a schedule that included No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 LSU. That “break in the schedule’” was Louisiana Tech, coached by Sonny Dykes, the leading disciple of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offenses.

A&M won 59-57, but it required an astonishing 72-yard touchdown run by “Johnny Football” – Heisman winner Johnny Manziel – after Dykes’ system rolled up 615 yards against the soon-to-be No. 9 Aggies.

College defensive coordinators no longer know what three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust means.

So during a week Yates is preparing a defensive scheme he hopes will stop Leach and Washington State from scoring 69 points against Arizona again, it’s not a good time to ask the UA’s defensive coordinator about last week’s stupefying 45-44 victory at Cal or any of the shootouts over his 17 coaching seasons.

“Let’s see. … one year, Fresno State – or was it Nevada? To tell you the truth, I’m so into Washington State I can’t remember much about those games,” said Yates. “But I do remember what Washington State did last year.’’

Yates paused and looked at his phone, as if for help or a suggestion. What day is this? Have I had breakfast yet?

A year ago, Washington State beat Arizona worse than any team in modern school history, 69-7, gaining 614 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. Yates’ memory of that game remains painfully clear.

“We couldn’t get off the field,” he said. “Tackling was an issue.’’

He looked away from his phone. He looked ill.

After Wednesday’s workout, Yates’ boss, Rich Rodriguez, delivered the Pac-12 Quote of the Week, surpassing Leach, who is almost unbeaten in that category.

“It makes me want to throw up,” RichRod said.

With eight coaches to run Arizona’s defense, from Yates and analyst Chuck Cecil to defensive graduate assistant Davy Gnodle, you sometimes assume there isn’t enough for the eight men to do.

Not any more, and especially not during Washington State week.

There’s neither a Kaepernick nor a Manziel on WSU’s roster, but the Cougars already have 11 players who have caught 10 or more passes. And it’s still October.

If Arizona is going to contend for a once-unthinkable Pac-12 South championship, if it is to beat WSU and, later, USC, Oregon and ASU, much of the responsibility falls to Yates and he knows it.

Yates fills the most accomplished assistant coaching position in UA history, any sport. Over the last 50 years, Arizona’s defensive coordinators have been, one after another, among the best in the profession.

It is a group that began with Sharkey Price and then picked up steam, introducing Larry Smith, Moe Ankney, Larry Mac Duff, Rich Ellerson and Mark Stoops as the Wildcats played defense-first football.

Given the shortage of game-changing defensive linemen, few teams play defense-first football any more, which means defensive coordinators get more flack and less slack. It’s mostly about outscoring the other guy. Leach and WSU have a clever, slick and innovative reputation as yardage-eaters and point-scorers, but, incredibly, the Cougars lag behind Arizona in both categories.

Arizona averages 514 yards per game, WSU 449.

Arizona scores 43 points per game, WSU 33.

But as far as the ticket-buying public is concerned, the pressure isn’t on RichRod and Leach to keep up their production. Rather, the onus falls on defensive coordinators like Marcel Yates to find a way to slow it down.

You wonder why it doesn’t go both ways. When the Wildcats beat Cal in double overtime last week, Yates got almost no mention.

But if you ask Yates what must happen for Arizona to continue its burst into prominence he puts it on himself.

“I’ve got to put the guys in better position to win,” he said. “I’ve got to make better calls.’’

On Saturday, as the Bears lined up with five receivers spreading the field, needing a two-point conversion to win, the Wildcats were prepared.

“We’d seen that all week on film, and we’d seen that no-back set all during the game,” Yates said. “We were fortunate our ‘Mike’ linebacker made the play and broke up the pass. I put him in a tough position, but he knew his assignment and made the play.’’

Freshman Colin Schooler made 15 tackles against the Bears, but he became the Pac-12 defensive player of the week for one play in the end zone, winning the game.

At this time last year, Schooler was playing for the Mission Viejo High School Diablos. Yates was one of the few who thought Schooler could make a difference. Arizona was the only Pac-12 school to offer Schooler a scholarship.

For Yates and the Wildcats, it’s one of the best calls the UA has made in years.