New defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen speaks during a Friday news conference.

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Arizona introduced new defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen on Friday afternoon at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.

Nansen, who replaces the one-and-done Don Brown after the fiery New Englander returned home to be the head coach of UMass, became the UA’s the fifth defensive coordinator in three seasons.

Nansen said the lure was simple.

“Arizona, to me, is a very special place,” Nansen said. “I understand being in the Pac-10 and being in the Pac-12, both coaching and playing. This has always been a special where you look at it and go, ‘You know what? It’s a special place.’ … It’s a powerful logo that we have to sell. The university is powerful, they’re just looking for us to bring the right attitude and determination to the program.”

The 47-year-old Nansen, a former assistant coach at Washington, USC and UCLA, has never worked directly with UA coach Jedd Fisch. The two were cross-town rivals in 2017, when Nansen was the associate head coach and linebackers coach at USC while Fisch was the offensive coordinator at UCLA. Fisch and Nansen stayed close when Fisch moved on to the NFL.

Fisch and Nansen had talked about joining forces at Arizona at least twice before, Fisch revealed on Friday.

“I think we were able to get exactly who I wanted to get,” Fisch said. “I feel like I hit a home run and I’m very happy about that, to be able to get Coach Nansen in here,” Fisch said. “It’s something we talked about last year when I got this job, (and) we talked a few years prior to that when I interviewed for it the first time when he was at USC and I was leaving UCLA. The idea to get Nansen in here is awesome for our program and our kids.”

Nansen talked Friday about choosing Arizona, his recruiting mindset and what it was like to play against the Wildcats’ “Desert Swarm” defense during his playing days at Washington State:

What was enticing about the job, and what was the ultimate deciding factor in choosing to coach at the UA?

A: “It was easy. The guy right next to me. (Fisch’s) belief and his mission, the big picture, he knew what it was going to take to turn this thing around. This place is a special place and when you look at the history of this place, you have unbelievable players who played here before me. … (‘Desert Swarm’) was my time, and the way they played the game was violent and physical, and that’s one thing that I hope to bring here to Arizona.”

Did you reach out to Fisch upon hearing the news of the vacancy?

A: “Yeah, a little bit, but I was focused on finishing our (regular) season at UCLA. So as soon as the season ended, Coach (Fisch) reached out and that’s when we started talking. From there, he told me exactly what he was looking for and so I was like, ‘Man, this is a great opportunity and let’s go do this thing together.’ We have a great staff here that believes in what his vision is. When Don left, that opened the door to take over and I’m excited about the opportunity.”

How has your coaching background prepared you for this opportunity?

A: “I started off as a defensive guy and I’ve coached the secondary, coached the defensive line, linebackers and then when I moved to Washington, I started off coaching the defensive line there and special teams. But I made a decision to move to the offensive side of the ball because I thought it made me a better coach. When you move on that side of the ball, the way you teach is totally different, because I know how offensive coaches are thinking and how they prepare. So that, to me, was something that I really wanted to study, and it made me a better coach once I got over to defense. Special teams prepared me to speak in front of the team because you have the heartbeat of the team there.”

How do you plan to recruit to Tucson?

A: “As far as recruiting is concerned, I grew up in Long Beach, California, and went to Washington State. I have a lot of ties in the (Southern California) area, especially in L.A. and then obviously Hawaii and the (Pacific) Northwest, so my relationships and ties are all in those areas. It makes it easier for us, and I understand the landscape of recruiting and the importance of the Polynesian pipeline here, with George Malauulu and Joe Salave’a and so many players who’ve played here. It’s important to me to continue to build that, but at the same time, you have to take the right kids, the kids who fit in the program and the vision that coach has. I’m excited to do that and get started.”

Does your approach change when recruiting at Arizona instead of USC or UCLA?

A: “I don’t think there’s a difference. I think it’s a mindset. I’m not afraid to compete against those big schools. I think if you have that mindset, that’s what makes you an elite recruiter. … It’s a mentality that you gotta have in order for you to become a great recruiter. The relationship that you develop with kids and parents is what I really enjoy. And on top of that, the ability to develop is the biggest thing. … My approach is going to be the same way. I’m going after the big players, because the players are what comes down to it. I could sit up here and say ‘I have all of these great calls,’ but if you don’t have the players to run those calls, it doesn’t matter.”


Johnny Nansen played at Washington State and has coached all over the conference, from Washington and USC to UCLA.

How would you describe the experience of playing against Arizona in the 1990s?

A: “There were two defenses in the league at that time: one was ‘Palouse Posse’ and the other one was ‘Desert Swarm,’ if you guys remember. It was exciting playing them and watching them, because when these guys play, they were nasty and physical and had fun doing it. That’s my vision at this place here. We could do that here. I want to be able to bring that back, but it’s going to take time and we’re going to have to recruit. But, it was just a joy to watch those guys, and it was just a great group of guys that gelled together. They loved one another, they played their tails off and that’s what I want to bring here.”

What style of defense do you plan on establishing at Arizona?

A: “Very similar to what the Seahawks are doing, what Dan Quinn in Dallas is doing, Tampa Bay. So, we’re going to be an over-and-under front, play some Cover 2, Cover 3, man-free and we’re going to be doing what Don was doing a little bit. I like to pressure a little bit more to keep offenses balanced. I just want to make sure our guys play hard. When you watch the tape, I want you to say three things: one, we’re tough. Two, they’re a physical bunch of guys and three, we play fast because the scheme is going to allow our guys to play fast, and it’s a fun brand to have.”

How do you envision the communication amongst the defensive coaches when it comes to calling plays?

A: “That’s the one thing I’m going to have to do a great job of, is to teach to the coaches how to teach the players, and I think I could do that. I know I could do that and I’ve been doing that for a long time. But at the same time, I gotta look at what we have and we can’t force-feed things if we don’t have the right personnel, so we’re going to try and keep it simple to allow our guys to play.”

What has this last week been like for you?

A: “That was fun. Monday, I had a (UCLA) shirt. Wednesday, I had a different shirt and then coach was calling me saying, ‘Hey, you gotta get on the road (to recruit),’ so I was with (Fisch) yesterday and it was a lot of fun. Now, I’m all-in. We have a couple (recruits) here and then next week will be a big week before National Signing Day. We gotta go to work.”

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter:


This article originally ran on tucson.com.


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