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First, Kavika Luafatasaga said he didn't know. Then he said he didn't pay much attention.

But the junior college transfer would need to have his ears nailed shut to not hear the whispers that Utah's linebackers are the "weak link" of the defense. And finally, he did acknowledge that he hears about it, but he twists the criticism his own way.

"We just use it to push us further," he said. "We are reminded of that by [linebackers coach Justin] Ena. Our group is the weakest link right now. But we're coming along."

It remains to be seen how far along Utah's linebackers group is after a game in which Cal only ran 14 times. Facing Arizona this week should be a strong bellwether for "the weakest link."

Under Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats have run wild against Utah (4-1) in four straight victories. In the first three, the Utes' normally stout defense gave up over 200 yards on the ground. Last year was an improvement — and Utah still allowed 158 yards on 34 carries.

Arizona is particularly beaten up this week. After losing starting quarterback Anu Solomon early this season and backup Brandon Dawkins injuring his ribs last week, the Wildcats pulled the redshirt of freshman Khalil Tate in a 45-24 loss to UCLA. The 6-foot-2 Tate had over 2,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing as a senior at Junipero Serra High in California and was the fourth-ranked dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said the Utes aren't preparing as much for the quarterback as the scheme Arizona runs. Despite starting running back Nick Wilson being beat up this season, Arizona has still managed to gain 247 yards per game, the 18th-best rushing offense in the country. About 40 percent of that production has come from the quarterbacks.

"All three of them are gonna run against you," he said. "Who is the better quarterback in terms of throwing the ball? I couldn't tell you."

Arizona's offense spreads opponents out and runs through the gaps. Scalley said Arizona's form of the zone read, when the quarterback reads the defense and determines whether to hand off or run himself, is a backside threat — the ball can go away from where Utah's defense is moving. Kyle Whittingham likened it to playing Air Force, in that it requires discipline and a quick read of who has the ball.

Arizona catches Utah's linebackers at a moment of transition: Luafatasaga has moved into the starting lineup. While junior Sunia Tauteoli played every snap last week against a Cal defense that required more nickel and dime packages with extra defensive backs, Luafatasaga was the first linebacker in after him, playing 35 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Scalley said Luafatasaga is currently "playing better" than sophomore Cody Barton. While the Utes feel comfortable with Barton in the lineup, Scalley said, Luafatasaga is delivering on the promise he held as a four-star JuCo prospect. Daily film studies with Ena have helped him grow his role.

"When he gets an opportunity and backs are squirting through the line, he makes some tackles," Scalley said. "He's becoming more aggressive, because he didn't know what he was doing. Now he knows what he's doing so he's playing with more confidence."

Utah's overall rushing defense is allowing 117 yards per game on the ground, ranking as the second-best run defense in the Pac-12. But Utah's linebackers were lit up against USC, when running back Justin Davis led the way as the Trojans rolled up a 213-yard rushing performance. Missed tackles and getting tied up in blocks helped the Trojans explode into the second level.

The Utes believe they've progressed from that point, allowing only 54 rushing yards to Cal last week. But there were breakdowns early on, as Tre Watson gained 37 yards on his first four carries. Tauteoli said coaches have asked for more physicality from the group.

"As a defense, Coach Scalley has come together for our group and told us we need to be more physical," he said. "People are getting a little head of steam [running the ball]. But when we get used it, it starts to shut down. As a linebacking corps, that's kind of what we pride ourselves in."

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Arizona's rushing threat

The Wildcats' zone read scheme has been a problem for Utah since Rich Rodriguez came to Tucson as head coach:

2012 • 46 carries, 320 yards, 3 rushing TDs (34-24 loss)

2013 • 58 carries, 300 yards, 3 rushing TDs (35-24 loss)

2014 • 47 carries, 298 yards, 4 rushing TDs (42-10 loss)

2015 • 34 carries, 158 yards, 1 rushing TD (37-30 2OT loss)