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2009 Arizona Preview - Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2009 - Defense
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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.
Star of the defense: Senior
CB Devin Ross
Tackles: Cam Nelson, 67
Sacks: Brooks Reed, 8
Interceptions: Devin Ross, 3
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.