2008 Arizona Preview - Defense
Arizona LB Ronnie Palmer
Arizona LB Ronnie Palmer

Posted Apr 11, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Arizona Preview | 2008 Arizona Offense
- 2008 Arizona Defense
| 2008 Arizona Depth Chart
- 2007 Arizona Preview
| 2006 CFN Arizona Preview 

What you need to know: Call the architect because Arizona is undergoing a major renovation on defense.  One year after bringing back 10 starters, the Wildcats lose eight regulars, including three all-stars, DT Lionel Dotson, LB Spencer Larsen, and CB Antoine Cason.  It’s a good thing Mike Stoops has recruited quality athletes the past few years because he’ll need a number of those kids to step forward this season.  While there are emerging playmakers, like S Nate Ness and CB Devin Ross, in the secondary, and steady Ronnie Palmer at middle linebacker, the defensive line is a major worry for the ‘Cats.  The ends don’t frighten anyone and the middle is soft, a one-two punch that could cripple the growth of the back seven. 

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ronnie Palmer, 83
Sacks: Johnathan Parker, 4
Nate Ness, 6

Star of the defense: Senior LB Ronnie Palmer
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Johnathan Turner
Unsung star on the rise: Junior Devin Ross
Best pro prospect: Senior FS Nate Ness
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Palmer 2) Ness 3) Junior SS Cam Nelson
Strength of the defense: The safeties, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Pressuring the quarterback, the tackles, inexperience at cornerback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The Wildcats must replace all four starters from a defensive line that wasn’t all that effective a year ago.  Uh-oh.  In relative terms, the defense will have more experience at defensive end, bringing back four players that lettered a year ago.  With 25 career starts, senior Johnathan Turner is easily the most seasoned member of the bunch, but he has to start performing like it this fall.  No longer saddled with nagging injuries, the 6-3, 262-pounder played every game, but produced just 25 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. 

Turner has to start delivering, as does sophomore Ricky Elmore, the favorite to start on the other side.  At 6-5 and 260 pounds, he has terrific size, and has risen quickly up the depth chart since leaving high school.  Used primarily on special teams as a freshman, he’ll soar past last season’s 10 tackles by the end of September.

A more dire situation exists on the interior, where Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson have run out of eligibility.  Junior Earl Mitchell and sophomore Lolomana Mikaele are the projected starters, but neither has the size to be confused with a two-gap run-stuffer.  The staff’s latest attempt to get Mitchell on the field has him moving from H-back to tackle.  An explosive athlete at 6-2 and 265 pounds, the Wildcats are hopeful he can overcome a lack of heft with quick feet and the ability to play with leverage to get penetration. 

If the spring is any indication, Mitchell is prepared for the challenge.  While Mikaele takes up a little more space at 6-2 and 285 pounds and had 13 tackles as a freshman, he’s also a potential liability when opponents commit to running the ball right up the gut.      

Projected Top Reserves: The ‘Cats are counting on a pair of little-used sophomores to push Turner and Elmore on the outside.  Although D’Aundre Reed lettered as a freshman, he was relegated to special teams and had just a couple of tackles in eight games.  Built like an outside linebacker at 6-4 and 240 pounds, he still has the coaching staff fawning over his athleticism and ability to zip around the block of the tackle. 

At 6-3 and 260 pounds, Brooks Reed is more of a strongside end capable of being on the field for every down.  A quality all-around athlete that used to play fullback, he had seven tackles in nine games, seeing most of his action on the punt and kickoff teams.

Behind Mikaele at the nose will be sophomore Kaniela Tuipulotu, a 6-2, 280-pound that made a few appearances in his first season.  One of the program’s top recruits of 2007, he has a nice burst and the upper body strength to vie for a starting job. 

While junior Donald Horton has a great first step and plays to the whistle, at 6-0 and 275 pounds, he’s liable to get manhandled by the Pac-10’s stronger linemen. 

Watch Out For…plenty of rotating among the ends and the tackles. The Wildcats don’t have slam dunk starters at either position, so Mike Stoops plans to freely insert fresh legs in order to compensate for a dearth of scary talent.                                        
Strength: Competition.  The only silver lining to losing all four starters is that the off-season competition should bring out the best in all of the Arizona linemen.  Complacency or a sense of entitlement will be non-existent on this unit.          
Weakness: Proven players, particularly on the inside.  The Wildcats have neither the experience nor the bulk at tackle to stand up to physical lines, such as the ones they’ll face from USC, Cal, and Oregon           
Outlook: Even when the ‘Cats had a bunch of veterans on the line in 2007 they struggled to get penetration and put heat on the quarterback.  The situation figures to get worse before it gets better, putting undue pressure on a back seven that has issues of its own.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: As much as any of the defensive departures, Arizona will miss Spencer Larsen, last year’s leader in tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries.  The lone returning starter is senior Ronnie Palmer, who was second to Larsen with 83 tackles and three tackles for loss.  The 6-3, 245-pound man in the middle for the ‘Cats is the biggest and most athletic of the linebackers, but still needs to improve on his overall consistency. 

The favorites to flank Palmer are senior Adrian McCovy and junior Xavier Kelley at strongside and weakside, respectively.  The 6-3, 225-pound McCovy missed all but four games with back spasms, but is switching outside, where coaches hope his intensity, athleticism, and jarring hits will be better utilized there. 

After two seasons as Larsen’s caddy, Kelley is hoping for a long-awaited regular role. While not very big at 5-11 and 215 pounds, he has outstanding range, and the speed to get the call in blitz packages. In a dozen games, Kelley had a dozen tackles, while also pitching in on special teams.      

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Vuna Tuihalamaka will finally play for the Wildcats after failing to qualify last year.  An elite transfer out of El Camino (Calif.) College, he’s outstanding in pass coverage and has the 6-2, 240-pound frame to be a factor in run defense.  Tuihalamaka is competing with McCovy at strongside and backing up Palmer in the middle. 

Yet another transfer, junior Sterling Lewis, is expected to provide depth at weakside on the second team.  A 5-11, 225-pounder, he has good closing speed and the instincts that earned him an Arizona scholarship.        

Watch Out For… McCovy. On the brink of being an academic casualty, he’s gotten his act together, and is determined to finish his Wildcat on a high note.  From the strongside, McCovy has the right demeanor and skill set to wreak havoc for the Arizona D.
Strength: Athleticism.  The current crop of Arizona linebackers aren’t built like the NFL is in their future, but they all move well to the ball and possess good sideline-to-sideline range.                   
Weakness: Proven players on the outside.  While McCovy and Kelley have one combined start for their careers, their backups, Tuihalamaka and Lewis, haven’t even taken a snap at this level.     
Outlook: Palmer is a nice start in the middle, but if Arizona is going to be better than average, it’ll need a couple of outside linebackers to have the best seasons of their lives.  While the ‘Cats have the athletic ability to rise up in pass coverage, they’ll struggle against the run, especially playing behind a line that’s going to allow plenty of backs to get to the second level.                          
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: Without four-year starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot, it’s going to be a lot easier to throw the ball on Arizona.  Cason, in particular, had a habit of cutting off half the field for opposing quarterbacks.  The likely successors figure to be senior Marquis Hundley and junior Devin Ross, both of whom lettered as backups a year ago.  At 6-0 and 175 pounds, Hundley has good size and the straight-line speed needed to play the position in the Pac-10.  In his first season out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, he had seven tackles and one start, mostly playing on special teams. 

If anyone will bridge the divide from Cason and Fontenot it’s believed to be Ross, a brash, athletic corner with improving cover skills.  The 5-11, 170-pounder made 16 tackles and a pick in 2007, gaining a taste of what it takes to shut down quality receivers.  For the next two seasons, Ross will be the future at cornerback in Tucson.

At safety, on the other hand, the Wildcats are breathing a sigh of relief.  Senior Nate Ness and junior Cam Nelson are returning starters at free safety and strong safety, respectively.  Ness started six games as a junior, making 32 tackles and tying Cason for the team lead with five interceptions.  At 6-1 and 190 pounds, he’s got uncommon cover skills for a safety, a bona fide ball hawk going back to his days in junior college. 

The 6-1, 200-pound Nelson continues to add muscle, yet hasn’t lost any of the agility or quickness that makes him such a defensive asset.  In his first full season as the starter, he made 60 tackles and four tackles for loss, setting the table for a strong second half to his ‘Cat career.   

Projected Top Reserves: While it’s doubtful they’ll unseat the starting corners, sophomore Mike Turner and redshirt freshman Trevin Wade.  The 5-11, 188-pound Turner spent time at wide receiver last season before returning to the secondary, where his blazing speed and fluid hips are better suited for batting down passes than catching them.  T

he staff felt fortunate to redshirt Wade, who is considered one of the secondary cornerstones for the next four seasons.  Like Turner, the 5-11, 175-pounder can fly, and flashed promising cover technique as a member of the scout team. 

Behind Nelson at strong safety will be 6-2, 180-pound sophomore Joe Perkins. Well-sized and athletically gifted, he’s yet to play significant action for the Wildcats.  Ness’ backups will be juniors Brandon Tatum, a 6-1 and 210-pound speedster that gets great elevation when the ball is in the air, and 5-10, 190-pound Corey Hall, who started six games a year ago, making 36 tackles, forcing a pair of fumbles, and picking off a pass.  . 

Watch Out For… Ness to earn All-Pac-10 recognition.  With good size and outstanding balls skills, he’s on the cusp of becoming one of the Wildcats’ top defensive players.  Ness made huge strides in last year’s debut, laying the foundation for a senior year that’ll attract attention from NFL scouts.                               
Strength: Athleticism.  Even without Cason and Fontenot, Mike Stoops and Arizona continue to attract elite athletes to the secondary that fly to the ball and can climb the ladder to swap passes away from the league’s taller receivers.
Weakness: Experience at cornerback.  While there’s plenty of upside in the group, the new starters are going to be noticeably green and the reserves have even less relevant experience.  It might not be until 2009 that the Wildcats truly feel confident about their perimeter pass defense.            
Outlook: In terms of the defensive backfield, the glass is half empty in Tucson.  While the safeties are set, the cornerbacks are facing a precarious situation.  How well they survive will depend, in large part, on how much support comes from a spotty and inconsistent pass rush.     
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: What a difference a year makes.  Last year, the ‘Cats were scrambling to replace Nick Folk.  This year, however, they boast one of the most stable special teams units in America.  Senior K Jason Bondzio proved he learned something as Folk’s understudy, nailing 21-of-26 field goal attempts and showing off better leg strength than expected.  Only 5-9 and 165 pounds, he was 8-of-10 outside 40 yards and almost one-third of his kickoffs couldn’t be returned. 

The only competition comes from 5-11, 175-pound redshirt freshman Alex Zendejas, whose uncle Max is an Arizona legend.  The next in a long line of successful Zendejas kickers, he booted a 59-yarder in high school, and has the pedigree and huge leg to be a solid three-year starter beginning in 2009.

While Bondzio did a nice impression of Folk, P Keenyn Crier was even better.  The sophomore parlayed a 43.7 yard average into a spot on the All-Pac-10 First Team in his first season of action.  A former walk-on, he displayed outstanding leg strength and hang time, while improving big time on his directional kicks.  The 6-1, 200-pound Crier will enter the season as one of the nation’s fastest rising punters. 

While Antoine Cason is no longer around to handle punts, Arizona still likes the combination of senior Mike Thomas and junior Devin Ross, who shared the duties on kickoffs with varying degrees of success.  A year ago, Thomas averaged 23.7 yards a return compared to 21.3 for Ross.

Watch Out For… Zendejas to make Bondzio work to keep his job.  The redshirt freshman is not your typical backup, boasting the accuracy and leg strength to mount a challenge against an incumbent that otherwise looks untouchable.                 
Strength: The kickers.  In Crier and Bondzio, the Wildcats are one of just a handful of programs that can trot out a punter and a kicker that’ll both vie for all-conference honors in 2008.             
Weakness: Coverage units.  Even with the punter and kicker hanging balls high in the air, Arizona did an awful job covering kicks, finishing in the lower half of the Pac-10 in punt return and kickoff return defense.  Tightening up both units will be one of new special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt’s top priorities.                
Outlook: Although there’s work to be done on both ends of the return game, the returns of Bondzio and Crier, to go along with Zendejas waiting in the wings, give Arizona one of the Pac-10’s best special teams units.         
Rating: 9



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