2012 Arizona Preview – Defense
Arizona LB Jake Fischer
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What you need to know: The offense is getting an overhaul in Tucson. So, too, is the defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez is reuniting with coordinator Jeff Casteel, who employs a unique 3-3-5 stack D that was highly successful for years at West Virginia. The new staff covets speed over size, and versatility. The linebacker who can defend the pass, and the safety who hits like a heavyweight are going to find their way on to the field. Sophomore Tra'Mayne Bondurant, for instance, is an ideal fit at the Spur, a hybrid on the back level. He was a revelation in his first year, the kind of defender who could become the face of the D in time. Arizona was supposed to be getting a massive influx of talent in the back eight this season. Yeah, LB Jake Fischer and CB Jonathan McKnight are back from ACL injuries that kept them off the field throughout 2011, but S Adam Hall reinjured his knee, and touted Akron transfer Brian Wagner recently decided to give up the sport. Along the D-line, the Wildcats are facing a split personality. They're loaded with depth and experience on the interior, but who's going to get to the pocket from the edge? The team ranked 116th in sacks last season, and moving well-sized former tackles outside doesn't seem to be the answer. Casteel may need to blitz liberally if he plans to unsettle the quarterback.
Star of the defense:Sophomore S Tra'Mayne Bondurant
Tackles: Marquis Flowers, 68
Sacks: Multiple, 1
Interceptions: Shaquille Richardson, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star:Justin DE Justin Washington
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Rob Hankins
Best pro prospect: Junior S Marquis Flowers
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Bondurant, 2) Washington, 3) Junior LB Jake Fischer
Strength of the defense: Big bodies up front, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, linebacker depth, pass defense, takeaways, run defense, red-zone stops
The Wildcats need a major upgrade along the line, arguably the program's weakest unit of 2011. The D is shifting a three-man front that's going to favor size and muscle over pure speed. The ends, for instance, are going to be a lot thicker than they were last fall. Challenging for one end spot is 6-4, 267-pound sophomore Dan Pettinato, who put down a solid foundation in his debut on the desert. As a starter in three games, he chipped in 16 tackles and a sack, growing as his first season unfolded.
On the opposite side, there are high hopes that junior Justin Washingtoncan recapture his bust out performance as a defensive tackle in 2010. A year after racking up 46 tackles, 11.5 stops for loss, and a half-dozen sacks, he was never the same last fall, finishing with just 18 stops and two tackles for loss. He is capable of so much more as a pass rusher. At 6-2 and 268 pounds, he has the short-area quickness and upper body strength to revert back to being a nuisance on every down.
Also in the rotation will be 6-4, 282-pound sophomore Kirifi Taula, who debuted well in 2011. A powerful lineman, who can also double as a tackle, he started four games as a rookie. Testament to his quickness off the snap, he collected 21 tackles, four of which were behind the line of scrimmage.
At the all-important nose tackle, 6-2, 275-pound junior Sione Tuihalamaka will be tasked with clogging the middle of the line. He plays with a fiery motor, bringing a contagious work ethic to the front wall. He had 19 tackles and 1.5 stops for loss in 2011, but is often more valuable than his numbers will indicate.
Watch Out For .... the run defense to be ahead of the pass rush … again. The Wildcats are going to have the girth on the first line of defense to hold up against many opposing lines, but who cranks up the heat? Arizona desperately needs Washington to channel his 2010 self, and become the sparkplug of an ailing pass rush.
Strength: Creating traffic jams. With a line that could average at least 270 pounds, the Wildcats are going to be difficult to move off their blocks. Plus, they've all got good motors, refusing to quit until the whistle blows. The line plays with a blue-collar mentality, which is going to produce results, especially late in games.
Weakness: Getting to the quarterback. After ranking 116th nationally in sacks a year ago, it remains to be seen if the Wildcats can make enough of a step forward this fall. The early returns are not encouraging. Unless Washington becomes a tour de force, Arizona will strike fear into the hearts of no one this season.
Outlook: The ‘Cats are only marginally talented on the line, which is going to haunt the defensive backfield throughout the season. The program boasts a bunch of pluggers up front, but not the kind of playmakers who can support the second and third levels of the D. Washington has a high ceiling, and a big responsibility, but he's the exception of an otherwise middling unit.
Arizona is going to be painfully thin at linebacker, a position coping with the graduations of leading tacklers Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls. Making matters more daunting Akron transfer Brian Wagner, who was expected to provide an immediate infusion of talent, decide in June to leave the game. The silver lining comes in the form junior Jake Fischer. The bad news is that Fisher suffered a torn ACL that kept him from dressing in 2011. The good news? It occurred almost a year ago, meaning he's had extra time to get healthy for the start of his junior season in Tucson. As an eight-game starter at two years ago, he had 58 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss and two sacks. At 5-11 and 215 pounds, he's basically a safety, with the speed and range to make things happen all over the field.
Expectations are going to be very high for 6-1, 218-pound sophomore Rob Hankins, a former three-star gem who fielded offers from all over the country. As a rookie, he made 10 stops, and even started three games during an up-and-down apprenticeship. He's one of the more physical and assertive members of this unit, a big hitter who can intimidate with his style of play.
Rounding out the likely starting unit will be Hankins' classmate, 6-2, 224-pound sophomore Hank Hobson. He earned a start in his first year, and made eight stops. Mature beyond his years, the coaching staff feels as if the second-year defender can leave his mark very early in his Wildcats career.
The only linebacker even listed on the post-spring two-deep is 6-2, 210-pound rookie C.J. Dozier, Fischer's understudy. Although he certainly needs to add more weight, he has already shown enough intelligence, quickness and toughness to guarantee himself a sizable role in his first season on campus.
Watch Out For .... Fischer to pick up where he left off in 2010. Now that he's healthy again, and is a critical component of the defense, the junior is eager to take his game to another level. He's a real gamer, the kind of no-nonsense, hard-working defender who has already captured the eye of the coaching staff.
Strength: The future. The Wildcats linebackers are sure to endure some growing pains in the fall, but this could evolve into a special group late in the year, or certainly by 2013. Everyone has at least two years of eligibility remaining in Tucson, and Hobson, Hankins and Dozier are still in the embryonic stages of their college careers.
Weakness: Seasoning. Arizona is going to be young in 2012—painfully young. Furthermore, they're also undeveloped in terms of size as well, averaging less than 220 pounds from left to right. When facing some of the more physical offensive lines in the Pac-12, the ‘Cats are going to have a very difficult time holding their ground against the run.
Outlook: From graduations to transfers and retirements, if it could have gone wrong for the Arizona linebackers in the past year, it did.
At least Fischer is back from injury to provide a jolt of energy. The group is going to be youthful and at times exciting, but also rather green and inconsistent when attempting to stop the run. Wildcats will have to grin and bear it, while understanding that better days are ahead in 2013.
With the shift to Jeff Casteel's new 3-3-5 stack, Arizona will be looking for an additional safety to roam the secondary in search of the man with the ball. The cornerbacks, however, received more attention in the spring. The position is in a state of flux following the graduation of the team's top cover man, all-star Trevin Wade. The ‘Cats are hopeful that sophomore Jonathan McKnight can make a complete recovery from a serious, season-ending injury. The 5-11, 170-pound cornerback was enjoying a breakthrough second season in Tucson, one that had him slated to start the opener. And then the injury bug bit him during an August practice. The sophomore tore his ACL, effectively ending his campaign before it could ever get off the ground. McKnight—and his team—hope he'll be at full strength in the summer.
McKnight is in the hunt for either cornerback position. On one side, he's squaring off with 6-1, 183-pound Derrick Rainey. The junior has had problems getting on the field, but is coming off a solid spring camp. While he made just a pair of tackles in seven games, his long stride and physicality have him pushing for a starting job.
On the other side, it'll either be McKnight or junior Shaquille Richardson, a returning starter who showed flashes in 2011. In 10 games, the 6-1, 188-pound playmaker made 47 tackles, two stops for loss and a team-high four interceptions. While he certainly has potential and ideal size for the position, he also needs to prove he can contain the league's better receivers, which just didn't happen with enough frequency last fall.
The program's quest for multi-dimensional safeties took a big hit in April, when likely starter Adam Hall was lost for the year. One of the young players to step up in his place, sophomore Jared Tevis, is on the verge of locking down a starting job. While only 5-10 and 188 pounds, the walk-on continuously impressed with his tenacity, work ethic and penchant for the big hit. While he lacks ideal size, his heart and head keep standing out to the staff.
At the all-important spur position, a hybrid of a safety and a linebacker, the Wildcats have a couple of quality options. Sophomore Tra'Mayne Bondurant would seem like a natural fit since he started six games at either linebacker or nickel back in his debut out of high school. The program's Newcomer of the Year made 45 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and six pass breakups en route to being named honorable mention All-Pac-12. Besides being just 5-10 and 208 pounds, he's an ideal fit, bringing athleticism, intensity and playmaking ability to the position.
Bondurant and junior Marquis Flowersare currently playing the same position, but the staff might find a way to get both on the field at the same time. At 6-3 and 221 pounds, Flowers has the best size among the defensive backs, a hard-hitting strong safety who can intimidate with his hits. Although he still needs help in coverage, as a run supporter in 2011, he finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles.
The final safety opening is a wide-open competition that might not be decided until late in August. The three competitors are 6-1, 189-pound true freshman Vince Miles, 6-2, 177-pound senior Mark Watley and 6-0, 186-pound sophomore Jourdon Grandon. Miles joined the squad as a walk-on this past January. Watley finally had his number called last fall, ending two idle seasons by making 27 tackles and a pick off the bench. Grandon has the best overall skill set of the group. He's a safety-corner hybrid, who started four games in 2011, and contributed 41 tackles, a pick and two forced fumbles. However, he has had some discipline issues that better be addressed now if he plans on playing for Rich Rodriguez's team.
Watch Out For .... Bondurant to become a favorite of the new coaching staff. He's a perfect match for a defense that covets safeties who can do a little of everything, from flexing their muscles against the run to dropping back smoothly into pass coverage. Add in the right intangibles, and the Wildcats have a potentially special defender capable of blowing up into a Pac-12 star.
Strength: Hitting. The Wildcats defensive backs are a feisty bunch, especially now that a third safety is entering the fold. With Flowers and Bondurant leading the way, Arizona promises to be very aggressive from the last line of defense, pressing the issue by quickly filling running lanes.
Weakness: Blown coverages. The Wildcats were shredded through the air in 2011, and that was when Wade was still wearing the school colors. Now that he has graduated—and the pass rush remains a question mark—the situation is prone to getting worse before it gets better. Arizona finished last season no higher than 10th in the Pac-12 in pass defense, completion percentage, yards per attempt and pass efficiency D.
Outlook: The ‘Cats must improve their pass defense, a situation complicated by the knee injury to Hall and the continued struggles of the D-line. The secondary was strafed repeatedly in 2011, and now its top cover corner needs to be replaced. The safeties could be a pleasant surprise. However, the cornerbacks really need McKnight to be healthy and ready to pick up where he left off before getting hurt last summer.
The one sure-thing on an otherwise uncertain special teams unit is at punter, where senior Kyle Dugandzic will be looking to pick up where he left off in 2011. In an auspicious debut out Ventura (Calif.) College, he would have led the Pac-12 with a 46-yard average had he made enough attempts to qualifies for the rankings. He also showed good touch with his punts, angling 12-of-40 inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The incumbent at placekicker is senior John Bonano, a steadying force on special teams a year ago. He took over for an ineffective Jaime Salazar and Alex Zendejas, hitting 8-of-12 field goals to earn improbably All-Pac-12 honorable mention recognition. However, junior Jake Smith, a transfer from Syracuse and Youngstown State showed enough leg strength in the spring to make this a competition in the summer.
Junior Richard Morrison is competing to be both the Wildcats' punt and kick returner in the fall. He has terrific sped and the upfield vision to find the daylight in a coverage team. His competition will come from sophomore Jonathan McKnight on punts and junior Kylan Butler on kickoffs.
Watch Out For… Smith's quest to make the kicker competition interesting in August. He didn't back down to the incumbent in April, which really turned the staff's heads. Bonano was hardly without flaws in his debut, and a new set of coaches is keeping an open mind about a lot of positions on the two-deep.
Strength: Dugandzic. Who knew? The punter was a revelation in his first season in Tucson, doing an unexpectedly crisp job of replacing Keenyn Crier. He quickly assimilated to his new digs, punting with excellent pop and angles. The senior should once again be the defense's best friend.
Weakness: The coverage teams. What happened here? A unit strength in 2010 degraded into a liability last fall, as the Wildcats finished 110th nationally in punt return average defense and 103rd in covering kicks. The new regime will look to immediately plug the holes in both sectors by attempting to flood the field with quality, aggressive athletes.
Outlook: While Arizona appears to be heading in the right direction on special teams with the likes of Dugandzic and Bonano, no one is poised to claim mission accomplished. The return game is still searching for a spark, and the coverage teams have a long way to go after getting exploited on a weekly basis in 2011.
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2012 Arizona Defense |
Arizona Depth Chart