Arizona Preview 2006 - Defense
Arizona Wildcats
Posted Aug 8, 2006

Arizona Wildcats Preview 2006 - Arizona Defense

What you need to know ... The pieces should finally be in place to have the defense Arizona fans envisioned when Mike Stoops took over as head coach with nine returning starters plus end Marcus Smith, who missed almost all of last year. The biggest improvement will be at linebacker, where Spencer Larsen, Dane Krogstad, and Ronnie Palmer are finally healthy and should finally be on the field at the same time. The line isn't all that big and has to get into the backfield more and generate more pressure. The secondary has the potential to be among the Pac 10's best if a steady free safety can be found; there might not be a better trio in the conference than safety Michael Johnson and corners Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Willie Fontenot, Spencer Larsen, 51
Sacks: Marcus Hollingsworth, 6
Interceptions: Michael Johnson, 3

Star of the defense: Junior CB Anotine Cason
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Johnathan Turner
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Yaniv Barnett
Best pro prospect: Cason
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Cason, 2) LB Spencer Larsen, 3) SS Michael Johnson
Strength of the defense: Cornerback, experience
Weakness of the defense: Size on the line, proven pass rush

Defensive Line
This is where the team desperately needs its biggest overall improvement. There's more than enough experience with six players coming back who have started highlighted by the return of a bulked up Marcus Smith at end. It's not a huge line and it needs to rely on its overall athleticism to make plays, but on the flip side, the front four hasn't been productive enough at getting into the backfield over the last few years.
The key to the unit: More plays need to be made in the backfield after finishing last in the Pac 10 in tackles for loss and helped generate a mediocre 24 sacks.
Defensive Line Rating: 6.5

Projected Starters
- DE Johnathan Turner, Soph. - 27 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 TFL
Turner is coming off a strong redshirt freshman season and should grow into a strong pass rusher now that he knows what he's doing. He bulked up to 250 pounds and should be better against the run, but his main job will be to get into the backfield.

- DT Yaniv Barnett, Jr. - 27 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL
The big-time recruit started to show flashes of his vast potential after starting every game last year and is now expected to be a rock in the middle. He'll mostly look to clog up the middle, but he needs to start getting into he backfield more.

- DT Lionel Dotson, Jr. - 21 tackles, 3 broken up passes
Dotson started out as a big end and then turned into an undersized tackle. Now he's up to 280 pounds and should handle the power teams better on the inside and use his quickness to start getting to the quarterback. After starting four games last season, he should be experienced enough to be a solid full-timer.

- DE Marcus Smith, Sr. - 7 tackles
Smith missed most of last year after getting hurt in the second game. The year off might have been a blessing in disguise as it gave him a chance to hit the weight room where he bulked up to a rock-solid 285 pounds which should make him far better against the run. Getting shoved around was a problem in 2004, but he was a strong pass rusher. Now he should be an even more impressive pro prospect. 

Top Backups
- DE Michael Shelton, Soph. - 5 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL
The 250-pound Shelton stepped in as a true freshman and saw time in seven games. He's a strong tackler and a speed rusher who'll provide a spark behind Jonathan Turner.
- DE Jason Parker, Jr. - 14 tackles, 1 sack
Parker got plenty of work in every game last season and now will be a key backup behind Marcus Smith. While not nearly as big as Smith, the 265-pound junior should be almost as good against the run.
- DT Rickey Parker, Sr. - 9 tackles
A good-sized 286-pound veteran, the former JUCO transfer got a little bit of starting time and had a few decent moments. He's not going to replace Lionel Dotson, but he'll see far more playing time in the rotation after a great spring.
- DT Paul Philipp, Sr. - 3 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL
One of the line's biggest players at 294 pounds will play an even more prominent role now that he's healthy after suffering a shoulder injury. He has plenty of starting experience, but he hasn't been all that productive so far.

The linebacking corps should finally be a strength now that everyone is together and relatively healthy. Spencer Larsen, Ronnie Palmer and Dane Krogstad were all hurt last season and there was never any consistency in the corps. If all three can be on the field together, this should be one of the team's strengths. The depth is experienced and there are several options to play around with various formations, but the success of the defense rests on the starting three.
The key to the unit: The top three linebackers have to be on the field at the same time for most of the season.
Linebacker Rating: 7.5

Projected Starters
- Dane Krogstad, Jr. - 38 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL
The 240-pound junior missed five games last year hurt with knee and neck problems, but he still managed to be one of the team's better tacklers. Able to come back for the Arizona State game, he still was less than 100%. He's a good hitter on the strongside with impressive speed and enough experience to be counted on as a leader and near the top of the stat sheet.

- Ronnie Palmer, Soph. - 38 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 TFL
Palmer missed the first five games with a broken foot before coming back to have a nice first season highlighted by a 14-stop game against Oregon State. He bulked up big-time going from 217 pounds to 239 and should be one of the team's top tacklers combining his size with fantastic range. The new size has done nothing to slow him down; if anything, he looked quicker this spring.

- Spencer Larsen, Jr. - 51 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL
The defense gets a big boost with the return of Larsen after missing the last few seasons on a Mormon mission in 2003 and 2004 and out part of last year with a knee injury. Even though he only played in eight games, he still finished as one of the team's top tacklers showing little rust. He's a big, smart weakside defender who's a sure tackler and great as a pass rusher.

Top Backups
- Marcus Hollingsworth, Sr. - 41 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 TFL, 1 interception, 4 broken up passes
Part safety, part linebacker, the 230-pound senior is one of the team's best all-around tacklers with great range and a knack for always being around the ball. He's not the strongside linebacker that Dane Krogstad is, but he's just as much of a big-play defender.
- Adrian McCovy, Soph. - 7 tackles, 2 sacks
Thrown into the mix as a true freshman thanks to all the injuries to the linebacking corps, McCovy showed a few flashes in the middle as a pass rusher as well as a good special teamer. He got bigger this off-season going from a quick 214 pounds to a stronger 234. Even though he'll spend most of his time on special teams, he'll be in the defensive rotation early on.
- Xavier Kelley, RFr.
The bulked up safety will bring his speed and athleticism to the weakside behind Ronnie Palmer. He'll be expected to shine as a big hitter on special teams.

Defensive Backs
The athletes and talents are there; now there has to be more production. Yeah, Arizona finished second in the Pac 10 in pass defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense, but it still allowed 225 yards per game and got a break statistically because offenses spent so much time running the ball. Wilrey Fontenot and Antoine Cason form one of the league's best corner tandems, and they should be even better with more of a pass rush. Replacing safety Darrell Brooks will be tough with Brandon Tatum and Dominic Patrick needing to shine at free safety. Michael Johnson is a rising star at strong safety.
The key to the unit: All the great prospects have to use their experience to be more effective against the better passers. More big plays would be nice.
Secondary Rating: 8

Projected Starters
- CB Wilrey Fontenot, Jr. - 51 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 broken up passes
Back for his third season at the corner, Fontenot has been fantastic in coverage and a steady performer despite checking in at a light 5-9 and 174 pounds. He's a solid tackler who isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and doesn't seem to have problems due to his lack of size. Mostly, he's needed for his speed against the faster Pac 10 receivers.

- FS Brandon Tatum, Soph. - 4 tackles
Able to play either safety position, the 6-1, 188-pound sophomore will battle with Dominic Patrick to take over Darrell Brooks' old spot. He spent his true freshman year on special teams where he'll still spend time along with his duties on defense. He's the cousin of legendary Ohio State Buckeye and Oakland Raider, Jack Tatum.

- SS Michael Johnson, Sr. - 60 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4 interceptions, 4 broken up passes
On the verge of being an All-Pac 10 star, Johnson had a good first year after coming over from the JUCO ranks and played even better this spring. He's 6-2 and 210 pounds with next-level speed and range. While not a blow-him-up hitter, he doesn't miss tackles.

- CB Antoine Cason, Jr. - 50 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 interceptions, 5 broken up passes
One of the Pac 10's best all-around defenders, Cason has made 120 tackles and picked off seven interceptions in his first two seasons. He's a fantastic open-field, safety-like tackler with more than enough speed to make big plays all over the field and be a lockdown, number one corner getting the start again on the strongside.

Top Backups
- FS Dominic Patrick, Jr. - 7 tackles
Able to play either safety position, the 6-1, 188-pound sophomore is neck-and-neck with Brandon Tatum for the starting free safety job. Injuries were a problem last year limiting him to part-time duty in eight games, but he has the speed to play like another corner to go along with decent hitting ability.
- FS Nate Ness, Jr.
Ness will push very, very hard for the starting free safety job when he arrives this fall. The JUCO superstar is a ball-hawking 6-2 and 190 pounds with 19 career interceptions.
- CB Devin Ross, Fr.
Incredibly fast clocking in a 10.95 in the 100 meters, the team's star recruit is a physical corner with next level quickness. With all the inexperience at backup corner, Ross will be asked to play like a veteran right away.

Special Teams
No matter who's punting, the kicking game will be among the best in the nation. Nick Folk has unlimited range as both a placekicker and a punter, but transfer Kyle McQuown will likely handle the punting job this fall. Syndric Steptoe is a decent receiver and an All-America return man averaging 11.1 yards per punt return and 25.5 yards on kickoff returns. The punters boomed the ball so much that there were too many huge returns, but the kickoff coverage unit was fine.
The key to the unit: A punter needs to be settled on and more chances are needed for PK Nick Folk.
Special Teams Rating: 9

Projected Starters
- PK Nick Folk, Sr. - 7-11 FGs, 31-33 extra points, 22 punts, 983 yds, 44.7 yards per kick, 8 inside the 20
Folk has a huge leg as both a placekicker and a punter showing 51-yard range on field goals and finishing as the Pac 10's top punter, even though he didn't qualify because he only had 22 punts. He'll push for the punting job again, but he'll most likely concentrate on being even better on field goals.

- P Kyle McQuown, Jr.
The Idaho State transfer has to try to fill some big shoes after the Wildcats averaged 44.9 yards per punt. He averaged 43 yards per punt on 71 kicks in D-IAA.

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