2009 Arizona Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 22, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Arizona Preview | 2009 Arizona Offense
- 2009 Arizona Defense
| 2009 Arizona Depth Chart
- 2008 Arizona Preview | 2007 Arizona Preview
| 2006 Arizona Preview

What you need to know: It’s time to start heaping more credit on defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who molded last year’s unit-in-transition into one of the Pac-10’s stingiest defenses. Now that he’s got 10 players back with starting experience, this could be the best Arizona defense since Dick Tomey was roaming the sidelines. The strength of the group is a talented, Devin Ross-led secondary that was a microcosm of last season’s improbable results. Combine their shutdown skills with the relentless pass rush of DE Brooks Reed and DT Earl Mitchell, and opponents might be well-served to avoid the airways. That’ll put added pressure on a run defense that’s a little less dependable and a lot more likely to be tested this fall. 

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Cam Nelson, 67
Sacks: Brooks Reed, 8
Interceptions: Devin Ross, 3

Star of the defense: Senior CB Devin Ross
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Vuna Tuihalamaka
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Robert Golden
Best pro prospect: Ross
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Ross 2) Junior DE Brooks Reed 3) Senior DT Earl Mitchell
Strength of the defense: Pass defense, edge pressure, overall team speed
Weakness of the defense: Making red zone stops, run defense, size of the front seven

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: It took a year to regroup, but with everyone back from 2008, the ‘Cats feel good about the defensive line. Leading the way will be a pair of former offensive players, junior Brooks Reed on the outside and senior Earl Mitchell on the inside. No one on the team plays harder than Reed, a 6-3, 255-pound former fullback with a non-stop motor. After a slow start, he got real comfortable, finishing with 37 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and three forced fumbles. Still learning the position, he figures to get much better with more reps, staking his claim as one of the league’s most disruptive pass rushers.

Mitchell is another successful relo project. He’s bounced all over the depth chart over the last four years, finally settling down at defensive tackle. A 13-game starter at the position, he had 40 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, joining Reed as an All-Pac-10 honorable mention lineman. Although he’s bulked up to 6-2 and 295 pounds, he hasn’t lost the quickness or explosive burst that’s made it tough to keep him off the field.

Now that Kaniela Tuipulotu has decided to transfer to Hawaii, there’s an opening at the nose that could be filled by 6-0, 275-pound senior Donald Horton. A consistent veteran of seven starts and three letters, he had 21 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a sack last year. Too often, however, he got moved off the ball by the more physical blockers. A nice player to have in the rotation, he’s more valuable coming off the bench than playing the bulk of the snaps.

With Reed getting more attention this year, it should open things up for junior Ricky Elmore to spend more time in opposing backfields. He actually did a pretty respectable job of it last season, making 25 stops, seven tackles for loss, and four sacks as a nine-game starter. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he’s more of a strongside end, who’ll also provide support on running downs.       

Projected Top Reserves: When Elmore wasn’t in the starting lineup, 6-4, 248-pound junior D’Aundre Reed was there in his place. In his most extensive action as a Wildcat, he had 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack, but needs to be more effective at getting to the quarterback. With his speed and quick first step, his sole purpose as a lineman is to create pressure.

Watch Out For… Brooks Reed to develop into an even nastier pass rusher. He’s one of those players who’s going to do whatever is necessary, on or away from the field, to get better. Considering that most of his eight sacks came purely on hustle and determination, he’ll be even better once he really knows what he’s doing.  
Strength: Edge pressure. Reed and Elmore will both bring it on every down, forcing opposing tackles to be well-prepared and well-conditioned. The pair had a dozen sacks between them in 2008, a number they’d like to pass by Halloween.
Weakness: Run defense. Even though the Wildcats were better than expected last fall, they were still vulnerable against the likes of New Mexico, Stanford, and Oregon. The program needs a couple more Mitchells, who can clog running lanes and eat up multiple blocks.
Outlook: While Arizona does not have an elite defensive line, it sure has come a long way since last summer. With Reed wreaking havoc from the outside and Mitchell shooting the gaps on the inside, the program has the foundation of a unit that, at the very least, will not be out worked.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: The job of replacing Ronnie Palmer, last year’s middle linebacker and defensive MVP, belongs to 6-2, 230-pound senior Vuna Tuihalamaka, who had 23 tackles as a reserve in his first season out of El Camino (Calif.) College. A terrific all-around athlete, he plays with the range and tenacity to make a slew of plays in his final year in Tucson. He has the talent and opportunity to adequately fill the void left by Palmer’s graduation.

Returning to weakside is 5-11, 215-pound senior Xavier Kelly, a fearless defender with the sideline-to-sideline speed of a safety. A natural coming off the edge on blitzes, he was sixth on the team with 51 tackles, adding 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles. While not very big, he can punish like a much bigger player.

Lining up at strongside will be 5-11, 225-pound senior Sterling Lewis, another speedy, undersized linebacker, who can make plays all over the field. In his first year removed from Blinn (Tex.) College, he chipped in with 59 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a sack. 

Projected Top Reserves: In order to bolster the depth here, the staff is toying with moving senior Corey Hall from safety to strongside linebacker. He’s played a ton of football in Tucson, and despite being only 5-10 and 201 pounds, does not shy away from contact. Primarily a nickel back as a junior, he helped make 35 stops, three tackles for loss, and broke up five passes.

Sophomore Orlando Vargas, last season’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, will caddy for Kelly at weakside before replacing him in 2010. A 5-11, 220-pound converted safety, he appeared in 13 games a year ago and had 11 tackles. He’s a playmaker, who can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. 

Watch Out For… Tuihalamaka. While he’s the one frontline linebacker who did not start a game in 2008, he could wind up being the star of this group in 2009. A ton of schools offered him a scholarship for a reason. He can play. And now that Palmer is out of the way, he has a chance to prove it to the rest of the Pac-10.
Strength: Speed. The current crop of Wildcat linebackers may not be built like the NFL is in its future, but they all play downhill, move well to the ball, and possess excellent sideline-to-sideline range.                   
Weakness: Depth. A bunch of newcomers will join the ranks in the summer. They better be ready to contribute right away because at least a couple will be needed to skip a redshirt season and bolster a thin second and third unit.
Outlook: While these guys are fast and athletic, the unit lacks star power and that one sure-fire all-league performer. They also lack size, which will cause particular problems when they’re matched up with rangy tight ends floating over the middle.    
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: Two starters return from a secondary that soared past expectations last fall. The star of the group is 5-11, 175-pound senior CB Devin Ross, who did a magnificent job of offsetting the graduations of four-year starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. A big-play guy and the lockdown corner this defense covets, he had 50 tackles, three picks, and 13 pass breakups, earning a spot on the All-Pac-10 second team. He has the hips, speed, and ball skills of a future high NFL draft choice.

The next in a growing line of pro-caliber Arizona cornerbacks is 5-11, 182-pound sophomore Trevin Wade. In a reserve role last year, he had a dozen tackles and a team-high four interceptions. He’s basically where Ross was before he got on the tarmac in 2008. Another dynamite athlete with budding cover skills, he’ll surprise quarterbacks, who think they’re getting a bargain by avoiding Ross’ side of the field.

The other returning starter is 6-1, 202-pound senior Cam Nelson, who’s making a move from strong safety to free safety. A quality run defender and big hitter, he’s continuously added muscle since arriving without losing his quickness or range. In his second season as a starter in the secondary, he finished third on the team with 67 tackles, adding three tackles for loss and five pass breakups.  

The program is real excited about the future of 5-11, 190-pound sophomore Robert Golden, one of the nation’s top defensive back recruits of 2008. After playing a reserve role and making 13 tackles as a rookie, he’s making the transition from cornerback to strong safety. If the spring is any indication, he’s here to stay. Not only does he have outstanding cover skills and instincts, but he’s also shown the ability to knock the snot out of opposing receivers. This is shaping up as his breakthrough year in Tucson.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Mike Turner is back after sitting out last season for a violation of team rules. An elite 2006 prospect, who had offers from just about every Pac-10 school, he has the talent to be the first corner off the bench and eventually replace Ross in the lineup. A 5-11, 175-pound burner with excellent cover skills, he played some wide receiver two years ago, a testament to his athleticism and good hands.

Quality depth at safety will come from 6-2, 198-pound junior Joe Perkins, coming off his first letter with the program. He played in all 13 games, making 20 tackles, and pitching in on special teams. He has the size, experience, and athletic ability to keep Golden from getting too comfortable with his starting projection.

Watch Out For… true freshman Adam Hall. Does anyone this side of USC do a better job of attracting blue-chip defensive backs to the Pac-10? Hall is a sensational prospect, who’ll begin climbing the depth chart at safety shortly after arriving. Physically, he’s ready to go, combining a 6-4, 205-pound frame with the athletic ability of a former star receiver in high school. He’s too talented to redshirt in 2009.
Strength: Pass coverage. With Ross leading the way and basically cutting off half the field, the Wildcats were air-tight a year ago, preventing the big play and finishing No. 14 nationally in pass efficiency defense. In terms of overall athleticism, there aren’t many units in the country that are better.
Weakness: Red zone defense. The secondary was nearly unbeatable in the middle of the field, but, like the rest of the defense, became more vulnerable when the other team got closer to the end zone. It certainly wasn’t all its fault, but the defensive backfield has to share some of the blame for Arizona’s 108th place finish in red zone defense.
Outlook: Last season was pegged as the rebuilding year, yet Arizona had one of the best pass defenses in the country. With many of the key parts of that group returning, the ‘Cats should be even harder to navigate through the air this fall. On speed and athleticism alone, they’ll match up well against just about every opponent.
Rating: 8.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Although the Wildcats lose PK Jason Bondzio, the program has no reservations about his successor, sophomore Alex Zendejas. The nephew of Arizona legend Max Zendejas, he was recruited for this very moment. He has a huge leg, the demeanor, and the pedigree to be a standout over the next three years. While Bondzio was deadly accurate, he never had Zendejas’ ability to connect from beyond 50 yards.

For the third straight season, the program is set at punter with junior Keenyn Crier. A former walk-on, he’s been recognized as an All-Pac-10 performer the last two seasons, averaging just under 44 yards a punt a year ago. He displays outstanding leg strength and hang time to go along with rapidly improving directional kicks.

Over the last two years, the ‘Cats have lost Antoine Cason and Mike Thomas, leaving massive holes in the return game. The list of players looking to fill the void includes sophomore Keola Antolin, sophomore Bug Wright, senior Devin Ross, and junior Marcus Benjamin.

Watch Out For…: Zendejas. The next in a long line of Zendejas kickers, Alex could wind up being the best of them all. Physically, he’s not your typical first-time starter, boasting the leg and accuracy of a Groza Award contender. How well will he adjust to being in the spotlight for the first time? He should be fine, but you never know until the game hangs on his right foot.
Strength: Leg strength. Purely in terms of distance, Crier and Zendejas might win a competition against any kicking duo in the country. Both have pretty size and outstanding drive through the ball. 
Weakness: Kick returns. The punt team will sorely miss Cason and Thomas, but the kick return team also needs someone to step it up. The Wildcats averaged just 19 yards a return, or 105th nationally, last year, getting few big bursts out of Antolin and Wright. 
Outlook: As long as someone can ignite the return games, the Wildcats will once again be fine on special teams. The keys will naturally be Crier and Zendejas, who both have the talent to kick their way on to the All-Pac-10 team.
Rating: 8