2007 Arizona Preview - Defense
Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2007 - Defense
2007 Arizona Preview |
2007 Arizona Depth Chart
2006 CFN Arizona
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.
Tackles: Spencer Larsen, 89
Sacks: Louis Holmes, 4
Interceptions: Antoine Cason, 3
Star of the
Senior CB Antoine Cason
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior DE
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.