When he outlined the qualifications he was seeking in a defensive coordinator, Arizona coach Jedd Fisch clearly had someone in mind.
Johnny Nansen checks all those boxes.
A renowned recruiter with extensive experience on the West Coast, Nansen was hired as the Wildcats’ defensive leader Wednesday. He will be introduced to the Tucson media at a news conference Friday.
Nansen, 47, has been UCLA’s defensive line coach the past two seasons. He spent the previous six years as an assistant at USC, where he served in multiple capacities, including defensive run-game coordinator and assistant head coach. Nansen also has coached linebackers, special teams and running backs.
UCLA ranks second in the Pac-12 in run defense, allowing 124.3 yards per game. The 2020 Bruins surrendered a league-low 3.6 yards per rush. They also led the conference in sacks at 3.3 per game.
Nansen was named the 2017 Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports.com while at USC. The Trojans’ 2018 class was ranked first in the conference and fourth nationally.
“He’s an outstanding recruiter,” Fisch told the Star in a phone interview Wednesday. “At this point in time in our program, we gotta nail the personnel side of it.
“The biggest thing for all programs is how you can go get talent and then develop talent. He’s proven year in and year out at three different Pac-12 programs that he’s an elite recruiter and a great developer of talent. The ability to go out there and have those Los Angeles ties that he has, the ties that he has with Hawaii, the ties that he has in the Polynesian community, all of it is a major positive.”
Nansen already was recruiting for Arizona by late Wednesday morning. His contract was agreed upon Tuesday night.
Fisch hasn’t worked with Nansen before, but two of Fisch’s assistants have. Quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty and tight ends coach Jordan Paopao were on staff with Nansen at Washington. Dougherty was at UCLA in 2020.
Fisch considered Nansen for the coordinator job upon becoming UA coach in December of last year. Fisch didn’t know at the time that Don Brown would be let go by Michigan. Fisch hired Brown, whom he had worked with in Ann Arbor. Brown left Arizona after one season to become the head coach at UMass.
Fisch said Brown and Nansen have different personalities but share an important trait.
“He’s very high energy,” Fisch said of Nansen. “Big smile. You’ll hear him all over the practice field. I’ve watched him coach before. You’ll feel his energy.
“I did talk to a couple guys that played for him, and both Coach Paopao and Coach Dougherty were on staff with him. (They) have all spoken about how infectious his energy is.”
Fisch said Arizona’s defense will be similar to what Pete Carroll runs, featuring mainly a four-down front with a combination of single-safety man coverage and three-deep zone. Also expect more zone blitzes to complement the man pressures Brown implemented.
Fisch said he’s “still working through” all of the position assignments. It’s likely that Nansen will coach inside or outside linebackers. That could depend on whether Keith Dudzinski, one of Brown’s trusted confidantes, remains on staff or follows Brown to UMass.
Nansen, who was born in Apia, Samoa, and attended high school in Long Beach, California, has coached several future NFL players. They include UCLA defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa and USC linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Cameron Smith. Nansen also coached two USC running backs, Ronald Jones II and Javorius “Buck” Allen, who would go on to play in the pros.
Nansen coached at Washington from 2009-13. After playing linebacker at Washington State in the mid-1990s, he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Louisville. Nansen made subsequent stops at Montana State, Idaho State and Idaho before joining Steve Sarkisian’s staff at UW in 2009. Nansen followed Sarkisian to USC in 2014 and remained on staff after Sarkisian was let go the following year.
Arizona has had five defensive coordinators since the start of the 2019 season. Chuck Cecil, who served as interim coordinator at the end of the ‘19 campaign, remains on staff as safeties coach.