2013 Arizona Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What you need to know: The Arizona D really never had a chance in 2012. The Cats were starting over last fall--new coordinator, Jeff Casteel, new system, the quirky 3-3-5 stack, and new personnel everywhere. The fact that this unit ranked 118th nationally in total defense was about as shocking as a warm day in Tucson. After using a mess of underclassmen and walk-ons, while retaining last season's top 15 tacklers, the D can't help but be improved in 2013. But by how much? Arizona still has glaring holes everywhere, except maybe at linebacker, where Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers are underrated standouts. The worries are bountiful, from a line that doesn't get enough pressure to a secondary that was overmatched throughout the 2012 campaign. Quick-fixes are not available, though a better understanding of the scheme and a year of seasoning for the young kids will certainly help. Topping the to-do list is to generate more heat in the backfield, something that has eluded this program over the last two seasons.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Jake Fischer
Tackles: Jake Fischer, 119
Sacks: Marquis Flowers, 5.5
Interceptions: Marquis Flowers, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Justin Washington
Unsung star on the rise: Senior NT Tevin Hood
Best pro prospect: Senior LB Marquis Flowers
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fischer, 2) Flowers, 3) Junior Spur Tra'Mayne Bondurant
Strength of the defense: The nose, linebackers, secondary depth, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, run defense, pass defense, third-down stops, red-zone stops
Just about everyone is back. But will the results be any different for a D-line that got routinely schooled last season? The Wildcats do like their options at nose tackle, seniors Sione Tuihalamaka and Tevin Hood. Hood, infamously known for sparring with a teammate on the sidelines during the New Mexico Bowl, has had a terrific offseason. The hard-nosed and smart 6-0, 293-pounder plays with excellent pad level, and is the nastiest member of the line. Hood started three games in 2012, finishing with 26 tackles, three for minus yards.
The 6-2, 271-pound Tuihalamaka started 10 games last season, but his inconsistency eventually allowed Hood to gain an edge. Tuihalamaka is a strong and steady plugger, even if he isn't at the top of his game each week. And if he fails to secure his old job, he'll be a luxury to have coming off the bench to provide breathers for Hood.
The Cats will use another tackle in their three-man line, a job that was held last year by 6-4, 264-pound junior Reggie Gilbert and 6-4, 265-pound junior Dan Pettinato. Both players have starting experience, while possessing the versatility to play some end. The staff is seeking a little more intensity and sense of urgency from Gilbert, whose eight starts produced 19 tackles, six stops for loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Pettinato led the team's linemen with 34 tackles, but struggled to create any chaos behind the line. He played through knee pain a year ago, starting five games on the interior and four at defensive end. He'll line up wherever he's needed, a fluid situation that'll be dictated by the performance of the Wildcats surrounding him.
As long as he maintains his focus, 6-2, 268-pound senior Justin Washington looks to be the team's best option at defensive end. He struggled with his weight and his focus, only managing three starts. His final tally read 18 tackles, two stops for loss and one sack, a pittance compared to the numbers he put up in 2010 that whet appetites.
All of the ends better be careful. Redshirt freshman Kyle Kelley is coming, and he's coming with something to prove. The prized signee from 2012 used last season to get bigger and more comfortable within the system. Kelley has played well during the offseason, lending hope he might be ready to contribute.
Watch Out For .... Hood to emerge into one of the physical and emotional leaders of the defense. No, he's not making NFL scouts swoon, but he has exactly the kind of demeanor and work ethic that the coaching staff adores. Hood brings an attitude to the first line of defense that the Wildcats sorely need.
Strength: The nose. Hood is poised for a career year, the kind that might even earn him some fringe all-conference recognition. But it's the fact that a veteran such as Tuihalamaka could be coming off the bench that the position is easily the deepest for Arizona up front.
Weakness: Winning at the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats were tossed around last year, a central reason why the balance of the defense never stood a chance. The challenge for this season's unit will be to rise above last season's result, which included a No. 105 ranking versus the run and a league-low 16 sacks in 13 games.
Outlook: After finishing 108th and 116th nationally in sacks, Arizona has a very long way to go along the defensive line. The staff is basically looking for different results from the same players, no small request. The Cats are a scrappy bunch, but not the kind of group that will take a game over. And if the unit wilts the way it did in 2012, it'll be impossible for the rest of the D to not be severely affected by the lack of support.
While there's a ton of work to be done on defense, at least there are a lot of familiar faces back to help in the reclamation project. Senior Jake Fischer made a triumphant return from a torn ACL that prevented him from dressing in 2011, amassing a team-high 119 tackles, 6.5 stops from loss, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. While hardly built for middle linebacker at 6-0 and 222, the honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection plays the game with maximum intensity and passion. Fischer is the heart and soul of the D, a try-hard type defender who should be good for another 100-plus tackles in his Wildcat finale.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season, senior Marquis Flowers was relocated from safety to strongside linebacker. Shrewd move. Not only did he finish second on the team with 100 tackles, but he also chipped in with 13 stops for minus yards, 5.5 sacks, three picks and three forced fumbles. At 6-3 and 229 pounds, Flowers brings ideal versatility to the defense. He has the size to be impactful against the run and the experience in the secondary to contribute in coverage. Depending on where the greatest need exists, the senior could be a candidate to return to the secondary this fall.
Self-made sophomore Sir Thomas Jackson started all but one game of his rookie year at weakside. The hard-working walk-on tied for fifth on the team with 58 tackles, including five for loss and 1.5 sacks. At 6-0 and 205 pounds, Jackson lacks ideal size, and he isn't the fastest guy on the unit, but his passion and drive will continue earning him snaps.
Junior Hank Hobson would probably be the favorite for the third job if only he can stay healthy, but that's a big "if" considering history. The 6-3, 236-pounder tallied 14 tackles in six games last year, but missed the other seven contests to injury. Hobson has the best size of the contenders, which the staff is especially eager to get on the field on running downs.
Sophomore C.J. Dozier will be looking to build on his breakout performance in the New Mexico Bowl, in which he notched 15 tackles. It was the seminal effort of a rookie who only had 27 stops all season. Like Jackson, he, too, is undersized at just 6-2 and 205 pounds, but he operates with excellent range and budding instincts.
Watch Out For .... the identity of that third starting linebacker. The Wildcats are very pleased with Fischer and Flowers as the season approaches. But that starter at weakside remains a mystery. Any one of three Cats are capable of nabbing the job, which will make for a very spirited competition in the summer.
Strength: Closing to the ball. While they're not the biggest or the fastest, the Arizona linebackers are highly instinctive, especially against the run. Led by Fischer, the Cats read and react quickly, doing a nice job of wrapping up their target. Blue-collar at their core, these defenders are not going to be outworked another team.
Weakness: Measurables. The linebackers aren't very big, and they're certainly not the fastest ensemble in the Pac-12. The fact that the Wildcats bear a striking resemblance to safeties at the second level is one of the reasons that the D allowed 33 touchdowns on the ground in 2012.
Outlook: A healthy Fischer and a properly-positioned Flowers could help make the Arizona linebackers sneaky-good this fall. While the Cats aren't going to bowl opponents over with their size-speed combination, they will make a ton of plays this fall. Depth is also not the concern it was at this time last year, regardless of who winds up winning the open job at weakside.
Having lost no one to graduation, there's hope that the Wildcats secondary will be a little less generous this season. It'll also help to have spent a full season running coordinator Jeff Casteel's unique 3-3-5 stack. At the all-important "spur" position, a hybrid of a safety and a linebacker, Arizona is thrilled to be bringing back 5-10, 188-pound junior Tra'Mayne Bondurant, a third-year starter. He's exactly the type of multi-dimensional defender that the program seeks, combining athleticism and toughness with playmaking ability. Last year's resume was highlighted by 74 tackles, 11.5 stops behind the line, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
The D got a pleasant surprise with the development of "bandit" Jared Tevis, who earned a scholarship after arriving as a walk-on a year earlier. Thrust into a starting assignment after Adam Hall was injured, the junior earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition after making 82 tackles, two interceptions and four forced fumbles in only 11 games. While just 5-11 and 196 pounds, Tevis works hard, hits hard and is going to continue getting better as he earns more reps in the lineup.
FS Jourdon Grandon started the first nine games of 2012 before giving way in the final four to 6-1, 189-pound sophomore Vincente Miles. The 6-0, 192-pound Grandon showed flashes, making 55 tackles and six pass breakups, but lacked the consistency in coverage to finish what he started. Miles was one of six Wildcats walk-ons to play in 2012, beginning his college career by making 28 tackles.
Everyone in the secondary will need to improve after allowing 25 touchdown passes a season ago. The corners will look to senior Shaquille Richardson for its lead in 2013. The 6-1, 182-pound veteran has good size and ample experience, but needs to make progress in coverage. The starter in all but two games made 58 tackles and broke up a team-high 14 passes defended. However, Richardson had just one interception, and the high number of pass breakups was partially due to the comfort level opposing quarterbacks had in picking on him.
Junior Jonathan McKnight is expected to handle one of the cornerback jobs. He made a very successful return from a serious knee injury suffered in 2011, starting nine games. The slim 5-11, 161-pound brother of former USC RB Joe McKnight tied for the team lead with three interceptions, adding 51 stops and four pass breakups. The hope is that McKnight will be even sharper in his second year removed from the knee injury.
Arizona sports an experienced secondary, flush with veterans who'll compete for playing time in the rotation. Senior Derrick Rainey started six games a year ago, making a career-high 46 tackles as a valuable member of the rotation. Behind Tevis at "bandit" will be 6-1, 219-pound sophomore Patrick Onwuasor, a two-game starter in his debut. The big and physical former wide receiver collected 36 tackles in a promising first season on defense. Bondurant's caddy at "spur" will be 6-1, 201-pound sophomore Wayne Capers Jr.. Capers played in 11 games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, but start the bowl game.
Watch Out For .... jobs to be up for grabs this summer. Arizona has plenty of similar players ... and a need to get much better in pass defense. That's code for the staff doing whatever is necessary to get the five best players on the field. If any Cat is underperforming, rest assured that there's a backup waiting to land a promotion.
Strength: Depth and experience. Nine different defensive backs started a game in 2012. All nine are back for another season in Tucson. The Wildcats can now go two-deep with experienced players who have a firm grasp on their assignments, which was not the situation at this time a year ago.
Weakness: Blown coverages. For the second year in a row, Arizona was schooled through the air in 2011, ranking 117th nationally in pass defense. Sure, the lack of a pass rush was a contributing factor, but the Cats need to do a much better job of keeping the ball in front of them. This D needs a stopper out of the secondary, someone who can discourage quarterbacks from targeting one side of the field.
Outlook: If Arizona is going to improve in pass defense, it'll need to be a collaborative effort that comes from the D-line and the secondary. The good news is that the defensive backfield was young a year ago, and is bound to improve with age and reps. The concern is that the Wildcats are lacking in quality pass defenders, something that'll get exposed at times throughout the 2013 season.
The graduations of last year's punter and placekicker have left the staff auditioning replacements for both positions. Senior Jake Smith is nothing if not persistent. The kicker from Philadelphia, who spent a year at Syracuse and Youngstown State, is done rehabbing last year's ACL tear. Smith is attempting to fend off sophomore Casey Skowron and junior Alex Ragsdale, a Colorado State transfer.
The only punter on the roster during the spring was sophomore Drew Riggleman, a former walk-one who has yet to play for the Wildcats. The local athlete, who went to plenty of Arizona games growing up, has the edge of having practiced with the first team this offseason.
Although no job has been secured just yet, the Wildcats do welcome back last year's top punt returner and kick returner, seniors Richard Morrison and Daniel Jenkins, respectively. Jenkins averaged 20.6 yards per attempt, while Morrison would have ranked No. 3 in the Pac-12 had he had enough attempts to qualify.
Watch Out For… Riggleman to be challenged this summer by true freshman Bret Miller. The rookie from San Clemente, Calif. is an even better kicker, which means the lineup behind Smith will become even more crowded.
Strength: The return game. Morrison and Jenkins are a couple of shifty playmakers who can get upfield after making the first man miss. Both players are veterans of the special teams in Tucson, rarely making the kinds of mistakes that shift momentum over to the other sideline.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. Not only are P Kyle Dugandzic and PK John Bonano gone, but they're successors lack any relevant experience as Wildcats. A competitive environment during the summer is never a bad thing, but in Arizona's case, it's an indication that no one has been sharp enough to lock down a job.
Outlook: The special teams group isn't a complete unknown as fall camp quickly approaches, but it's pretty darn close. While the return game and coverage teams ought to be fine, the staff isn't quite sure what to expect from its kicker or its punter. And therein lays the problem. If the Cats can't solidify both positions, winning close games becomes that much tougher.
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