2011 Arizona Preview – Defense
Arizona CB Trevin Wade
Arizona CB Trevin Wade
Posted Jun 11, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What you need to know: Defensive coordinator Tim Kish is going to have his work cut out for him this fall. Not only did last year's squad get progressively worse as the season unfolded, but five key starters from that group are gone, including the pass rush tandem of Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore. Oh, and making matters even worse, three projected members of the two-deep suffered ACL tears in the spring. The Wildcats might be even more vulnerable than in 2010, looking to locate a pass rush, develop a new middle linebacker, and plug holes in the defensive backfield. The staff is holding out hope that some of the gifted sophomores, such as DT Justin Washington, SS Marquis Flowers, and corners Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson can seize leadership roles and take some heat off of the veterans.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Paul Vassallo, 102
Sacks: Justin Washington, 6
Interceptions: Adam Hall, Shaquille Richardson, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Paul Vassallo
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE C.J. Parish
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Marquis Flowers
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Trevin Wade
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Vassallo, 2) Sophomore DT Justin Washington, 3) Wade
Strength of the defense: The tackles, outside linebacker, athletes in the secondary, limiting the big play, run defense, third down D
Weakness of the defense: The ends, middle linebacker, consistency of coverage, takeaways, red zone D

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: It'll be a tale of two disparate stories for the Arizona D-line, which has ample talent on the inside, but loses a couple of stars at defensive end. There's no easy way around the fact that it's going to be impossible to replace all-star pass rushers Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore who now play for the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers, respectively. In fact, just one returner started more than four games last season, making the D-line almost as big of a sore spot as the O-line.

Taking full advantage of the attention the ends received last year was 6-2, 280-pound sophomore Justin Washington , who had a sensational debut at defensive tackle. Despite missing the first two games with an injury, he went on to make 46 tackles, 11.5 stops for loss, and a half-dozen sacks. Recruited as an end, he has the burst, upper body strength, and non-stop motor to consistently beat opponents to the backfield and occasionally require double-teams.

Joining Washington on the interior will be 6-2, 280-pound sophomore Sione Tuihalamaka , who was in the lineup for the opener and three other games a year ago. Playing with tremendous intensity and the necessary quickness to fight through blocks, he chipped in 23 tackles and three stops behind the line. Junior Willie Mobley was slated to be one of the top tackles off the bench, but tore his ACL playing in a pick-up basketball game in May. Only 6-2, 275-pound junior Chris Merrill has earned a letter among the reserve tackles.

So who succeeds Reed and Elmore on the outside? The void is enormous. Versatile senior C.J. Parish is on the brink of earning one spot after a terrific performance in the offseason. A converted fullback and linebacker, the 6-2, 245-pounder has excellent speed and intensity, but needs to sharpen his overall technique, especially after missing most of 2010 with a head injury. The favorite to bookend him on the other side is 6-2, 245-pound senior Mohamed Usman , who was limited to three games following an academic suspension. A one-time Houston Cougar, he plays with the quickness and closing speed of an outside linebacker. In order to address the need at end, the staff is hoping to shift 6-4, 260-pound senior Dominique Austin outside from tackle. A veteran of 27 games and three letters, he has the size and strength to provide a much-needed strongside presence in run defense.

Watch Out For .... Parish's progress. On sheer athleticism and want-to alone, he willed himself to the top of the depth chart by the end of the spring. He has a little bit of Reed in him, an aggressive convert from the other side of the ball who's even trying to emulate some of his predecessor's swim moves.
Strength: Interior quickness. In Washington and Tuihalamaka, the Wildcats have a pair of exciting young sophomores on the inside, exploding off the snap and shooting the gaps. Unlike a year ago, when this was the weak link of the unit, Arizona has a lot of promise at defensive tackle.
Weakness: The ends. Not only do you not get better after losing Reed and Elmore, but Arizona has serious question marks waiting in the wings. The projected starters, Parish and Usman, appeared in just three games apiece in 2010, and there's not a single end on the roster with a career sack on the resume.
Outlook: In a mirror image of a year ago, when the ends were a strength and the tackles a liability, the Wildcats are going to struggle to mount a pass rush from the outside this fall. Arizona is also rather small up front, which is going to present issues against the run as well. Washington is a budding star at tackle, but he's the exception on a defensive line that figures to be ordinary this fall.
Rating: 6.5


State of the Unit: All things considered, Arizona did a nice job of rebuilding at linebacker in 2010, inserting a couple of junior-college transfers into the lineup and turning them loose. It wasn't always perfect, but it worked for the defense. Now, with a chance to really turn the corner at the position, the Wildcats were hoping to have three returning starters on the second level of defense. Unfortunately, 5-11, 225-pound junior Jake Fischer was one of four ‘Cats to suffer an ACL tear in the spring and could miss a big chunk of the season.

One of the JUCO imports from last year was 6-3, 240-pound Paul Vassallo, the starter at weakside. Hitting the ground running, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 in his debut, making 102 tackles, eight stops for loss, and a pair of sacks. A former Nevada walk-on, he has ideal size on the outside and the instincts to lead the Wildcats in tackles for a second straight year.

The other key transfer from 2010 was 6-3, 247-pound senior Derek Earls, who started all but one game in the middle in his first year. Not nearly as effective as Vassallo out of the gate, he only had 44 tackles and 6.5 behind the line, needing to do a better job of sifting through traffic and finding his target. With Fischer on the shelf for an extended period of time, there are going to be more available reps for 5-10, 235-pound senior Bilal Muhammad . A former walk-on, he's played sparingly, but has persevered with a blue-collar work ethic. The Wildcats started almost half of last season's games with a nickel back instead of a third linebacker, which is liable to become more of a trend in 2011.

Watch Out For .... the role of the rookies. Arizona signed three athletic linebackers in February, all of whom will get a chance to play immediately. Rob Hankins might be the closest of the trio to being ready, and could fill a pressing need as an inside linebacker.
Strength: The outside guys. Now that Vassallo and Earls are back for a second season in Tucson, they'll be even better prepared to contribute for the defense. The pair has good size and lateral quickness, and the instincts to combine for at least 175 tackles this season.
Weakness: Depth of talent. After the top two linebackers, Arizona is going to be painfully thin at the position this fall. Losing Fischer, who was fourth on the team in tackles, hurts and is going to force the Wildcats to lean on first-year players and consider shifting to different alignments.
Outlook: The linebackers appeared to be a potential cornerstone of the 2011 D … and then Fischer went down. While it's not as if the junior is preparing for a career on Sundays, he is a returning starter and one of the veteran leaders of the group. In the meantime, Vassallo and Earls will be forced to work overtime, patrolling a larger swath of the field and making as many stops as possible.
Rating: 6.5


State of the Unit: The Wildcats have the building blocks of a sound secondary, even with the departures of a couple of last season's starters. However, as a whole, the defensive backfield was a disappointment in 2010, allowing twice as many touchdowns as interceptions made, and necessitating changes in the offseason. The staff is asking the veterans to raise the level of their play and a handful of underclassmen to bloom as quickly as possible.

The poster child for Arizona's desire to get better in the secondary is 5-11, 192-pound senior CB Trevin Wade, who's coming off a down year. Entering the season as one of the Pac-10's best corners, he was a disappointment, getting burned too often and even being benched a couple of times. He ended with just 47 tackles and one pick, a far cry from his sophomore year. That said, he still has the all-around athleticism and motivation to turn things around in his final season.

The frontrunner to team up with Wade at cornerback is 5-11, 175-pound sophomore Jonathan McKnight , who wasted no time getting in the rotation in his rookie year. The brother of former USC back Joe McKnight, he appeared in every game, making a dozen stops and showing off some of his natural athleticism and explosiveness. Right there with McKnight is 6-2, 180-pound sophomore Shaquille Richardson , a three-game starter in 2010. He spelled Wade at times last fall, making 29 tackles, two picks, and seven pass breakups. It's early in his career, but he has the size and the hips to emerge into a lockdown corner before he's through.

Carrying the banner for the free safeties is 5-11, 200-pound senior Robert Golden , the hardest hitter among the defensive backs. Coming off his best season as a Wildcat, he finished third on the team with 60 tackles, adding a program-best 12 pass breakups. A corner when he arrived, he has good cover and ball skills to go along with an unmatched passion for playing the game.

The new strong safety and a future star is 6-3, 220-pound sophomore Marquis Flowers , who was good enough to play from jump street. He had 11 tackles as a reserve, getting his feet wet immediately out of high school. An outstanding physical specimen, he has an All-Pac-12 ceiling once he grows more accustomed to the speed of the game. The program also has high hopes for 6-3, 198-pound redshirt freshman Josh Robbins , Golden's successor at free safety. Long and lean, he's set to take advantage of the spring ACL injury suffered by 6-4, 220-pound part-time starter Adam Hall.

Watch Out For .... Flowers to erupt into an immediate playmaker. He's added muscle and played very well in the spring, looking as if he was manufactured in one of USC's safety laboratories. An unknown outside of Tucson, he could be a rising star in the conference before very long.
Strength: Measurables. The Wildcats are chock full of exciting athletes in the defensive backfield. Never a program to be light in speed or agility in this area, all of the Arizona corners and safeties move well and jump high, allowing them to blanket opposing receivers.
Weakness: Consistency in coverage. This group should have performed better in 2010, and now must replace three players who started more than half of the last season. The ‘Cats allowed twice as many touchdown passes as their number of picks, intercepting a pass every 45 attempts.
Outlook: Arizona needs to get better in pass defense, a situation complicated by the knee injury to Hall. It'll have to be a collaborative effort that requires the veterans, such as Wade, to regain their old form and the underclassmen, like Flowers, McKnight, and Richardson, to play above their pay scale.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Between the loss of a former all-star punter and the erratic behavior of a returning placekicker, special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt has his work cut out for him this offseason. In an effort to replace P Keenyn Crier went out and signed Kyle Dugandzic from Ventura (Calif.) College, who performed with both pop and precision in his final season at the JUCO level.

Despite harboring the pedigree and leg strength, there remains concern about the performance of senior PK Alex Zendejas, who's trying to hold on to his job for a third straight year. Though no one is going to kick it farther, his accuracy came under scrutiny after going 14-of-19 on field goal attempts and missing five extra points. If the situation is going to improve, he'll need to get more air beneath his kicks.

Now that Bug Wright and Travis Cobb have departed, Arizona will be auditioning new kickoff and punt returners throughout the summer session.

Watch Out For… Zendejas to need overtime to fend off the competition. Between sophomore Jose Ortiz , senior John Bonano , and junior-college transfer Jaime Salazar , Arizona has enough talent to unseat the embattled incumbent.
Strength: The coverage teams. The Wildcats rebounded nicely here a year ago, which they hope to turn into a trend in 2011. They ranked 33rd nationally on punts, yielding just 6.5 yards a return, and were 38th on kickoffs, giving up a little more than 20 yards an attempt.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. The punter has yet to arrive and the placekicker is in danger of losing his job. The Wildcats are facing issues at both positions entering the summer, uncharted waters for a school that's been so good in this area in recent years.
Outlook: A year ago, Arizona appeared on the verge of being home to an All-Pac-10 punter and placekicker. Today, the latter is fending off mounting competition and the former has graduated. Plus, the return game is getting a new look, all of which equals a cloudy forecast for the Wildcat special teams unit.
Rating: 6.5

- 2011 Arizona Preview | 2011 Arizona Offense
- 2011 Arizona Defense | 2011 Arizona Depth Chart
- Arizona Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006