2007 Arizona Preview - Defense

Posted Jun 25, 2007

Preview 2007 Arizona Wildcat Defense

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Arizona Preview | 2007 Arizona Offense Preview
2007 Arizona Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Arizona Preview 

What you need to know: With the return of ten starters and an all-star caliber player at each unit, Arizona should be even stingier than 2006, when it led the Pac-10 in turnover margin and allowed fewer than 20 points a game.  The headliner once again will be senior Antoine Cason, one of the smoothest corners in America and a leading candidate for the Thorpe Award.  Led by underrated senior Spencer Larsen, the linebackers are a no-name crew that just goes out and makes a bunch of tackles every Saturday.  The onus for jump starting the pass rush falls squarely on the shoulders of senior Louis Holmes, a massive talent that underachieved in his first season out of junior college. 

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Spencer Larsen, 89
Sacks: Louis Holmes, 4
Interceptions: Antoine Cason, 3

Star of the defense: Senior CB Antoine Cason
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Louis Holmes
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Cam Nelson
Best pro prospect: Cason
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Cason 2) LB Spencer Larsen 3) Holmes
Strength of the defense: The back seven, experience
Weakness of the defense: Getting to the quarterback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Although his numbers failed to even come close to approacing expectations in 2006, senior end Louis Holmes is still the unmistakable catalyst for a veteran defensive line that returns all four starters.  At 6-6 and 270 pounds, he’s explosive and as athletic as an outside linebacker.  While Holmes had just two sacks after the opener last season, he has way too much physical ability not to be a force as a pass rusher and run stopper in 2007. 

The beneficiary of the attention Holmes is going to get will be junior end Johnathan Turner, who had 18 tackles and two tackles for loss last year, but failed to produce a sack.  He actually regressed from his freshman season, and needs to get more penetration in order to take some pressure off his linemates.

On the interior, the Wildcats will be relying on a pair of seniors, Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson.  More quick than he is powerful at 6-1 and 285 pounds, Barnett begins his third season as a starting tackle.  He had 18 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2006, missing three games in September with a hyperextended elbow and irregular heartbeat.  Barnett has to stay healthy in 2007 and deliver the best season of his career. 

Dotson is the defense’s best run stopper, a three-time letterwinner that had 31 tackles a year ago.  A former end that gives up some size to most opposing linemen, he uses his quickness and technique to get through blocks.      

Projected Top Reserves: Depth on the interior is a big concern for the coaching staff, which is why sophomore Donald Horton needs to evolve into a reliable member of the rotation early in his career.  While only 6-0 and 260 pounds, he’s extremely quick and has a motor that doesn’t quit. 

In senior Jason Parker and redshirt freshman D’Aundre Reed, the auxiliary ends are a nice blend of steady veteran and exciting young upstart.  Parker has earned three letters in his career, and had 22 tackles and five tackles for loss in five starts last season.  He’ll either beat out Turner for the start or play an awful lot as a backup.  The staff flirted with moving the 6-4, 225-pound Reed to outside linebacker, but absolutely love his potential as a pass rusher.  A sensational all-around athlete, he now has the added strength to hold up better against Pac-10 tackles.                   

Watch Out For… Holmes to make quite a salary run in his final year in the desert.  He flirted with the idea of leaving early for the NFL, but wisely returned to work on the finer points of the position.  After struggling in 2006 with the transition from junior college, he’s ready to turn that vast reservoir of talent into one monster season.
Strength: Experience.  The Wildcats are a senior-dominated line that returns five players with starting experience from last season.  Three of those five, Holmes, Barnett and Dotson, are good enough to contend for postseason honors.
Weakness: Getting to the quarterback.  For all the returning talent on the defensive line, Arizona is running out of excuses for not making more plays behind the line.  The Wildcats had just 15 sacks last year, none in the final three games, and have finished ninth or lower in the Pac-10 in each of the last two years.
Outlook: The talent is in place for this to be the nastiest Wildcat defensive line in many years.  The key for the unit will be to get to the passer with more frequency and develop some depth on the inside.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Three of last season’s top six tacklers are back, giving Arizona a veteran and vastly underrated corps of linebackers.  The leading man is senior Spencer Larsen, who comfortably led the team from the weakside with 89 tackles and 10.5 tackles behind the line in 2006 en route to a spot on the all-Pac-10 second team.  While not a superior athlete, he has tremendous instincts for the position, almost never misses a tackle and should be even sharper after completing his first full season since 2002. 

In the middle will be junior Ronnie Palmer, the biggest and best athlete of the group.  Although inconsistency and pass coverage were problems last year, he was second on the team with 69 tackles, while chipping in five tackles for loss and a couple of interceptions.  With an eye toward a breakout year, Palmer enjoyed the best off-season of his career.

At strongside is senior Dane Krogstad, a 6-2, 236-pound veteran of 28 games and 16 starts.  Lost for more than half of 2005 with a knee injury, he returned last fall to make 41 stops, three behind the line of scrimmage.  Krogstad is a big hitter that plays with decent range on the outside. 

Projected Top Reserves: Behind Larsen at weakside will be sophomore Xavier Kelley, a much smaller and faster option.  Built like a safety at 5-11 and 193 pounds, he flies all over the field and really delivers the payload.  Kelley’s coming off the kind of spring that’ll earn him a lot of looks as a freelancer with blitz assignments on defense in 2007. 

On the other side junior James Alford will be looking for more playing time after spending the balance of the first half of his career on special teams.  With a solid group of newcomers about to descend on Tucson, his hold on the No. 2 job is a weak one,     

Watch Out For… the arrival of the of the Tuihalamaka boys, cousins Vuna and Apaiata.  Two of the highest rated linebackers from California are expected to make instant drives toward the second unit if they don’t redshirt.  A junior college transfer, Vuna is smaller, faster and closer to contributing immediately at weakside or middle linebacker.  Apaiata is a 6-4, 225-pound strongside beast with the pass rushing skills of an end.
Strength: The first unit. Larsen, Palmer and Krogstad are all seasoned veterans that tackle well and lead by example in practice and on Saturdays. Larsen is already all-league, and could have company on the team in December.
Weakness: Durability.  Sure, they all held up in 2006, but can this once injury-prone group last a second straight season without any down time? If not, the drop-off to the second unit is rather pronounced.
Outlook: The Arizona linebackers were good in 2006, but should be even better in 2007 with a full season playing together.  Larsen will again make a ton of big plays without much recognition outside Pac-10 country.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: The Wildcat secondary loses just one starter and returns its most crucial entity, senior Antoine Cason, a bona fide lock-down corner and one of the premier defensive backs in the country.  A three-time member of the all-Pac-10 team, his decision to put off the NFL for one more year was one of the biggest off-season developments for the program.  With Cason roaming the secondary, it basically cuts off half the field for opposing quarterbacks. 

Cason’s partner at cornerback will be a familiar face, senior Wilrey Fontenot who has started 33 consecutive games for the Wildcats.  While only 5-9 and 175 pounds, he has track speed, good ball skills and plenty of opportunities for big plays with most offenses steering away from Cason.  The key for Fontenot in 2007 will be to avoid getting beat on the deep ball, which plagued him occasionally last fall. 

Senior free safety Dominic Patrick is a returning starter that finished third on the team with 44 solo stops in 2006.  At 6-1 and 210 pounds, he has good range in run support and is one of the most ferocious head-hunters on the Arizona defense. 

The newcomer of the secondary will be sophomore Cam Nelson, a strong safety that’s attracted fantastic reviews from teammates and coaches since the end of last season.  He’s 6-1 and 180 pounds with exceptional athleticism and the ball skills of a veteran cornerback.  On this experienced secondary, Nelson will play in the background, but he could be the star of the unit by 2008.      

Projected Top Reserves: While the second team is young and unproven, it’s also jammed with great athletes and future starters.  Purely from a physical standpoint, sophomore strong safety Brandon Tatum could be the best of a deep bunch.  A medical hardship last year, he’s 6-1 and 180 pounds with 4.5 speed and incredible leaping ability.  Now Tatum has to turn all of that potential into on-field production. 

At free safety will be junior Nate Ness, who redshirted in 2006 to get bigger and stronger after transferring from El Camino (Calif.) College.  He has terrific cover skills and the hands of a receiver, both of which will finally be unveiled in 2007.

The Wildcats also boast a couple of young, playmaking corners from the Class of 2006 in redshirt freshman Mike Turner and sophomore Devin Ross.  Turner has legit 4.4 speed and good hips, and has added weight to what used to be a slight frame.  With more experience, he has the potential to be a lights out defender.  Ross earned a letter as a true freshman in 2006, playing some defense and auditioning for the role of Syndric Steptoe replacement as a returner on special teams.  Yet another off-the-charts athlete, he can absolutely fly and already has sharp instincts in coverage.           

Watch Out For… the development of the young players on the B team.  Although the starters are basically set, the backups are a dazzling part of the future in Tucson once the three seniors graduate.  It’s worth focusing on the reserves now because at least two will be all-league before they’re through at Arizona.
Strength: Athleticism.  From the top of the depth chart to the bottom, the Wildcat defensive backs have terrific closing speed, great ups to combat taller receivers and, with the exception of Fontenot, the size needed to support in run defense.
Weakness: Consistency.  Despite all the talent, the secondary still allowed a few too many big plays in 2006 and didn’t really clamp down until November.  Playing in the Pac-10 can be rough on defensive statistics, but the Wildcats can do better than 206 yards a game and an eighth-place league finish in pass efficiency defense.
Outlook: While USC is in a league of its own, Arizona has the depth and talent to challenge UCLA as the next best thing in the Pac-10.
Rating: 8.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The graduation of Nick Folk means the Wildcats will begin a season with a new punter and placekicker for the first time since 1997.  His consistency in both areas will be sorely missed, especially since his successors are so young and inexperienced.  Taking over at punter will be redshirt freshman Keenyn Crier, a walk-on with above average leg strength and work to be done on his mechanics and directional kicks.  He’s getting better at hang time, which is good news for a punt coverage team that ranked 105th in the country last year. 

After studying under Folk for three seasons, junior Jason Bondzio feels he’s ready to show the rest of the league what he’s learned.  He doesn’t have Folk’s distance, a concern on kickoffs, but is accurate inside 45 yards. 

Not only do the kickers need to be replaced, but so does Syndric Steptoe, one of the most versatile and productive returners to ever play at Arizona.  There are a number of options being considered, including the program’s more athletic skill position players and defensive backs.  Whoever gets the nod is unlikely to match Steptoe’s explosiveness, a blow to an offense that needs all the help it can get.   

Projected Top Reserves: The spotlight special teams battle this summer pits Bondzio versus incoming freshman Alex Zendejas, whose uncle Max is one of the legendary kickers in school history.  The next in a long line of successful Zendejas kickers, he kicked a 59-yarder in high school, and has the pedigree and booming leg to unseat Bondzio before the opener at BYU.

Watch Out For… Crier to pick up a couple of first downs on fake punts this fall.  At 6-1 and 180 pounds, he runs a 4.5 forty, making him a very dangerous athlete that just happens to be a punter.  If nothing else, opposing punt return teams will have to pay attention to his athletic ability.
Strength: The return game.  Yes, Steptoe was the main reason for last year’s success, but when a program is top 3 in the Pac-10 in punt and kickoff returns, it also says something about the other ten blockers on the special teams unit.
Weakness: Proven specialists.  Losing a pair of dual threats, Folk and Steptoe, has Arizona scrambling to find not two, but four replacements among a group of very green candidates.
Outlook: While the defense is good enough to overcome a less than stellar punter, an offense in transition is going to need either Bondzio or Zendejas to convert when it stalls deep in the opposition’s territory.
Rating: 6


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2007 Arizona Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jun 25, 2007
2007 Arizona Preview - Depth Chart
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2007 Arizona Preview
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