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Published: Wednesday, 8/29/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Rodriguez goes with tried, true

Arizona coach trusts defense with former W.Va. assistant

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Rich Rodriguez ran through two ineffective defensive coordinators in his three seasons at Michigan. So in his first season at Arizona, Rodriguez hired Jeff Casteel, whose 3-3-5 defenses worked wonders at West Virginia. Rich Rodriguez ran through two ineffective defensive coordinators in his three seasons at Michigan. So in his first season at Arizona, Rodriguez hired Jeff Casteel, whose 3-3-5 defenses worked wonders at West Virginia.
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To trace the downturn of Rich Rodriguez's coaching career to a singular watershed moment would be misguided.

His dismissal after three tumultuous seasons at Michigan was precipitated by a number of bad decisions and bad breaks, from his failure to endear himself to alumni of the program, to sanctions brought on by NCAA violations, to his not being what people in Ann Arbor define as a "Michigan Man."

Perhaps Rodriguez would still be around, and his deficiencies forgiven, had Jeff Casteel been there to help. Rodriguez ran through two ineffective defensive coordinators with the Wolverines, all the while the one he sorely needed was back at West Virginia continuing to produce solid, if not stellar, units.

The second effort in his courtship of his missing piece was fruitful, as Rodriguez lured Casteel to Arizona this offseason from West Virginia, where the two comprised a fierce tandem -- Rodriguez the offensive mastermind, Casteel the defensive wizard -- and where they were an uncharacteristically poor performance in 2007 away from playing for a national championship.

The reunion of Rodriguez and Casteel, along with several other assistant coaches from that successful run in the Big East, will unfold Saturday at the opposite end of the country when Arizona hosts the University of Toledo.

"I think that was one of my objectives," Rodriguez said Tuesday. "To have staff chemistry we knew was going to be good. More than anything, there's a comfort level."

That harmony was absent at Michigan, where Rodriguez failed to beat rivals Ohio State or Michigan State, and lost to Toledo, in going 15-22.

He removed coordinator Scott Shafer after just one season, replacing him with Greg Robinson, whose units were even worse, ranking 82nd and 110th nationally in yards allowed.

When Michigan yielded a school-record 458 points in Rodriguez's final season, Casteel was busy orchestrating a unit that was third in the country, giving up 176.

Both Shafer and Robinson experienced success elsewhere, but neither had experience with the 3-3-5 scheme first implemented by Casteel and thrust on them by Rodriguez.

"That was a big piece of the puzzle that we didn't have," safeties coach Tony Gibson said. "We didn't have guys that worked together for seven years, that went on a pretty good run, that went to two BCS games."

Casteel and line coach Bill Kirelawich stayed behind in West Virginia. Said Gibson: "If we had the other two it would have been a good deal."

The band's reunion has spawned some beautiful music, says linebacker Jake Fischer, who appreciates Casteel's meticulousness in film study.

Casteel, who also serves as linebackers coach, was not made available for this story.

"You can tell they've worked together before and they all know the defense like the back of their hand," Fischer said.

Be that as it may, it is unlikely the staff's accord will strike an immediate resuscitation to a unit that ranked 110th in 2011, when it was butchered for 460.5 yards on average. That's 10 yards more than Rodriguez's worst showing at Michigan.

An uneven scholarship distribution the staff inherited leans heavily to offense, resulting in some defensive players playing out of position. Additionally, running back Taimi Tutogi will be forced to pull double duty on the defensive line.

This shortage of scholarship players on defense mirrors the situation Rodriguez stepped into at Michigan. This time, with the help of old friends, he is better equipped to overcome it.

"Everybody's hungry," Gibson said. "We do have something to prove. We want to get this thing going like we thought we could there."

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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