2008 Arizona Preview - Defense
Arizona LB Ronnie Palmer
CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2008 - Defense
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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.
Tackles: Ronnie Palmer, 83
Sacks: Johnathan Parker, 4
Star of the
Senior LB Ronnie Palmer
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.