UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, left, shares a laugh with coach Jedd Fisch during a Friday news conference at the Sands Club. Nansen, a veteran Pac-12 coach, is expected to help bring in better recruits.

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Nobody keeps record of such things, but over the past 13 years, Johnny Nansen has probably identified, evaluated and successfully recruited more high-level Pac-12 football players than anyone in the league.

He did so at Washington, UCLA and USC. The only thing lacking on his résumé was that he had not been a defensive coordinator. It might help explain the so-so reaction to Nansen’s appointment as Arizona’s defensive coordinator.

Jedd Fisch’s staff includes former Tennessee Titans DC Chuck Cecil and former UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, so why go outside and make Nansen their boss?

Here’s why: In college football, it’s not about the X’s and O’s as much as it’s about the Jimmys and Joes. Recruiting beats coaching almost every time, even at Alabama — especially at Alabama. (Sorry, Nick Saban).

“It’s about players, I believe that a million percent,” Fisch said Friday while introducing Nansen as his defensive leader.

Two things Fisch said he wanted in a defensive coordinator were (1) familiarity with the Pac-12; and (2) “somebody who’s been part of a rebuild.”

No wonder Nansen was hired. The only assistant coach with a longer active tenure in the conference is Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson.

Nansen has coached in the Pac-12 since 2009. As a player, he was a rock-your-socks-off linebacker at Washington State, part of two epic showdowns pitting WSU’s “Palouse Posse” against Arizona’s Desert Swarm defenses, 1993 and 1994, games Arizona won 9-6 and 10-7.

Rebuilding? In Nansen’s first full-time college coaching job, at Montana State in 2000, his team went 0-11. In next job, at Idaho, the Vandals went 9-26 over five seasons. He then joined the Washington staff after Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham went 0-12 and was fired.

Nansen could write a book about rebuilding college football programs. His last job, at UCLA, followed the firing of Jim Mora, who somehow went 17-19 over his final three seasons at a resources-loaded football school.

He’s the least likely guy to take a seat at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility and say, “what have I gotten myself into?”

“What it takes to turn (Arizona) around is intriguing to me,” said Nansen. “I understand the landscape of recruiting.”

Nansen could’ve remained safely employed on Chip Kelly’s staff at UCLA — the Bruins gave Nansen a $145,000 retention bonus and raised his salary to $368,000 this season — but he boldly said there’s “no difference” between coaching at UCLA and Arizona.

“I’m not afraid to recruit against (elite Pac-12) schools,” he said. Bring it on, right?

Don’t expect Nansen to be the emotional, all-attack, all-the-time DC the way his successor Don Brown was, but that’s not all bad. Brown often tried to fit the UA’s personnel into his system rather than acknowledge their not-ready-for-prime-time ability.

Besides, Cecil and defensive line coach Ricky Hunley aren’t lacking for fire, emotion and teaching skill. Their personalities are plus factors in any system.

Nansen, who grew up in Long Beach, California, has met and triumphed over significant adversity for the last 30 years.

He was an elite two-way player at Long Beach Jordan High School — today’s equivalent of a four-star prospect — and was offered a scholarship to play safety by UCLA’s Terry Donahue, among others. But Nansen saw himself as a quarterback more than a defensive player. Ultimately, he signed with WSU’s Mike Price, who was building the Cougars toward two Rose Bowls.

Once Nansen showed up in Pullman, he discovered that someone named Drew Bledsoe was the Cougars’ quarterback. Bledsoe was the 1992 All-Pac-10 player who would go on to play 14 NFL seasons. Then came Ryan Leaf, who would become the No. 2 overall NFL draft pick.

So Nansen became a linebacker with the “Palouse Posse,” overcoming so many obstacles that attempting to recharge a 1-11 team probably isn’t intimidating.

Before his junior season at WSU, Nansen was seriously injured in a one-car rollover in eastern Oregon while driving to Pullman for all semester. His car flipped seven times. Somehow, he wasn’t killed.

A year later, seemingly on his way to becoming an All-Pac-10 linebacker, Nansen broke his jaw in practice. His jaw was wired shut and he lost 15 pounds and missed four late-season games. Nansen returned to cap a successful career in which he made 103 tackles.

Nansen will find no young Johnny Nansens on the Arizona roster. He’ll first have to find, sign and help develop them.

To understand the desperate nature of Arizona as a defensive unit, consider the numbers. The Wildcats are last in the Pac-12 in points allowed since winning the Pac-12 South title in 2014. Over that period, the UA is the league’s only school to allow an average of 30 points or more in a season.

From 1980-2010, the Wildcats won with defense. Their succession of elite-class defensive coordinators is not likely to ever be matched. If Nansen is to live up to the standard set by predecessors Moe Ankney, Larry Mac Duff, Duane Akina, Rich Ellerson and Mark Stoops, he must start by finding his own version of Byron Evans, Marcus Bell, Tedy Bruschi and Antoine Cason.

“If you don’t have great players to run all of these plays,” Nansen said, “it won’t make a difference.”

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711

This article originally ran on tucson.com.


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