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2010 Arizona Preview – Defense
Arizona CB Trevin Wade
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Arizona Wildcat Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What you need to know: There’s a foundation in place for new coordinators Greg Brown and Tim Kish. Now all they have to do in the offseason is build on it. The replacements for Mark Stoops, who moved on to the same position at Florida State, inherited all-star candidates in CB Trevin Wade and ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed to go along with a handful question marks. With Wade locking down the other guy’s best receiver and the bookends meeting in the backfield, the ‘Cats are in good shape with their pass defense. Run D, however, is a different story. Arizona must replace last year’s starting tackles and linebackers, leaving a gaping hole in the middle that opponents will surely look to exploit.
Star of the defense: Junior CB Trevin Wade
Tackles: Trevin Wade, 71
Sacks: Ricky Elmore, 10.5
Interceptions: Trevin Wade, 5
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Jonathan Hollins
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Adam Hall
Best pro prospect: Wade
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wade, 2) Senior DE Ricky Elmore, 3) Senior DE Brooks Reed
Strength of the defense: Pass defense, the ends, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Red zone stops, linebackers, interior of the line
Projected Starters: The Wildcat defensive line is a tale of two different stories. The tackles are a concern, but the ends could form the best tandem in the Pac-10. Over the last two seasons, seniors Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed have both earned all-conference honorable mention recognition, but at separate times. The staff wants to see what they can accomplish together. Elmore owned the spotlight a year ago, making 44 stops, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks, which was good for No. 2 in the league. He’s beefed up to 6-5 and 260 pounds in the offseason, and plays with great game speed, getting off the snap in a hurry and battling his way to the backfield.
Injuries prevented Reed from following up on an outstanding sophomore season. He missed time with a knee injury and was never quite the same, collecting just 23 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. A 6-3, 255-pound former fullback, with a non-stop motor, he plays hard and fast, and never takes a play off. Like a caged animal, he can’t wait to get back on the field and back in the other team’s pocket.
The situation on the inside is far less certain, especially since Earl Mitchell graduated. The new veteran will be 6-2, 305-pound senior Lolomana Mikaele , who has lettered in each of the last two seasons and started three games a year ago. As an integral part of the rotation, he made 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, and will be asked to be an even more effective lane-clogger at the nose in his final year.
One of the rising stars along the line is 6-2, 280-pound redshirt freshman Sione Tuihalamaka, who exited spring atop the depth chart at defensive tackle. He plays with tremendous intensity and only knows one speed, constantly fighting through blocks in an effort to get into the backfield. Whether or not he maintains this spot, he’s earned a certain spot as a part of the rotation.
Projected Top Reserves: The steady veteran among the reserve ends is 6-4, 258-pound senior D’Aundre Reed , who has earned a letter in each of the last three seasons. Like having a starter coming off the, he’s strong at the point of attack and has the quickness to get around the edge. He’s appeared in 33 games, making a career-best 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season.
At defensive tackle, the coaches expect big things from junior Dominique Austin , though a toe injury kept him sidelined during spring practice. He played sparingly a year ago, appearing in 10 games and making four tackles, a situation that’s about to change out of necessity. With so much attention likely to go in the direction of the ends, the 6-4, 292-pounder needs to take advantage by beating his man and applying some inside pressure.
While Austin was recovering in March and April, 6-4, 280-pound junior Jonathan Hollins , a former College of the Canyons transfer, was the beneficiary of more snaps. A heralded recruit, who originally signed with Texas Tech and was pursued by major programs, he’s quick off the ball and can mount a pass rush, like a defensive end. His battle with Austin in August will be one to watch until the opener.
Watch Out For .... opponents to test the interior of that ‘Zona defense until it proves it can make stops. Teams won’t want to test Elmore and Reed, opting instead to run right at the softest area of the front line. If the Wildcats are to have a chance on defense, it’s imperative that Mikaele, Austin, and Hollins rise to the challenge.
Strength: Pocket pressure. Elmore and Reed are guaranteed to both bring it on every down, forcing opposing tackles to be well-prepared and well-conditioned. The duo is relentless by nature, and if both can have all-star type seasons, it’s going to make life so much easier for the linebackers and defensive backs.
Weakness: Plugging holes in run defense. The Wildcats actually exceeded expectations in this area last year, but what happens now that Mitchell, Donald Horton, and all three starting linebackers have departed? Unless the tackles are a collective pleasant surprise, this could be the school’s most glaring Achilles’ heel in 2010.
Outlook: The glass is either half-full or half-empty up front, depending upon your vantage point. The defensive ends are outstanding, even getting help off the bench from an old pro, like Reed. On the interior, however, there’s some hand-wringing taking place. Someone needs to offset the loss of Mitchell, and make opponents pay for attacking the middle of the field. In other words, there’s some pressure on Hollins to fulfill considerable expectations.
Projected Starters: Someone call Ty Pennington. The Arizona linebackers are about to undergo an extreme makeover. The ‘Cats will start the year at square one after all three starters and two of the top four tacklers graduated. The defense will lean heavily on a pair of junior-college transfers with two years left, 6-3, 235-pound Derek Earls and 6-3, 240-pound Paul Vassallo , to solidify the middle and weakside, respectively. Earls comes by way of North Dakota State College, where he earned JUCO All-American honors and a bunch of offers. He has the size to hold up in run defense and enough range to make plays all over the field.
Vassallo did his apprenticeship at Sierra College a couple of years after walking on at Nevada. He has the size needed to handle a step up in competition and the fundamentals to make tackles in the open field. The assumption right now is that it’s his job on the outside unless someone else can pry it away.
The lone favorite to start, who was actually in Tucson last fall, is sophomore Jake Fischer . The early frontrunner to land the strongside spot, he lettered in his debut, making seven tackles and contributing on special teams in 13 games. While only 5-11 and 220 pounds, he’s plenty tough and has the instincts to sniff out plays before they have a chance to develop.
Projected Top Reserves: Arizona is poised to remove the redshirts from a couple of players who are going to play a lot of football in Tucson over the next four years. Locking horns in the middle with Earls will be 6-1, 230-pound Trevor Erno , who has a considerable upside for the ‘Cats. A prototypical inside linebackers, he fills running lanes hard and will punish on impact. He’s a read and react type defender, who’s constantly working on improving his range.
While Erno has more blue-collar tendencies at the position, 6-1, 215-pound Cordarius Golston is a playmaker, with the speed and agility to fly all over the field. Built more like a safety, he can be used on the blitz or drop back into coverage and disrupt passing lanes. He’ll be in Fischer’s hip pocket at strongside all year.
Watch Out For .... the competition to rage on deep into the summer. There are so many unknowns at this position, it’ll be impossible for the coaching staff to have the two-deep written in stone until at least the middle of August. Sure, there are favorites, but all three starting jobs will be jump balls for the time being.
Strength: Competition. The positive from so much uncertainty? It’s guaranteed to bring out the best from a number of players, who can smell an opportunity for increased playing time very early in their Wildcat careers. The younger ‘Cats were sort of boxed out of snaps in 2009, but not any longer, which will raise the intensity level considerably.
Weakness: Sure-things. Fischer is the leading returning tackler among the linebackers, and he had only seven stops a year ago. That’s a big concern on the second line of defense. Not only does Arizona need to establish a starting unit, but it has to locate new leaders and cobble together some reliable depth.
Outlook: Tim Kish will be a busy man this offseason. Not only is he the new co-coordinator, but he’s also the team’s linebackers coach. Although he has some decent raw materials to work with, there’s no anchor or veteran to lean on. This is clearly a work-in-progress that still should be able to produce a couple of stoppers by mid-season.
Projected Starters: Two starters may be gone, but Arizona is hardly destitute in the secondary. It rarely is. At cornerback, 5-11, 182-pound junior Trevin Wade is ready to build on an impressive resume and stake claim to being one of the nation’s up-and-coming cover guys. A terrific all-around athlete, with the hips and footwork to stay with even the best receivers, he parlayed 71 tackles, five picks, and nine pass breakups into a spot on the All-Pac-10 second team. His ball skills will encourage quarterbacks to avoid half the field.
When those quarterbacks survey the field, they’re likely to look in the direction of 6-0, 190-pound senior Marcus Benjamin , the early favorite to nab the other cornerback spot. Now in his second season out of Arizona Western, he got his feet wet in 2009 by appearing in 11 games and making seven tackles. A former LSU commit, he has the athleticism coaches love, but just needs to get more comfortable in his expanded role.
Back for another year as the starting strong safety is 5-11, 200-pound junior Robert Golden . One of the country’s top defensive back recruits of 2008, he cracked the lineup last fall, making 41 tackles and two interceptions. A cornerback when he arrived, he has good cover skills and instincts, but can also step up separate the ball from an unsuspecting receiver. After speculation that he might be the guy to replace CB Devin Ross, he appears to be staying put.
At least for now, senior Joe Perkins has the inside track on the free safety spot. Now in his third year since transferring from El Camino (Calif.) Community College, he’s enjoyed a gradual increase in playing time, making 25 tackles as a reserve a year ago. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, he has the size, experience, and athletic ability to finish with a flurry, provided he continues to hold off the competition.
Projected Top Reserves: The heat being felt by Perkins is coming from sophomore Adam Hall , the gem of last year’s recruiting class. An exciting 6-4 and 212-pound prospect, he played sparingly in nine games last year, but is expected to get a significant bump in playing time. Physically, he has all of the tools of a future all-star, which is why Arizona fans everywhere cannot wait to see wraps come off No. 12.
Is this the year that senior Mike Turner finally fulfills the expectations that preceded his arrival in 2006? The Wildcats sure can use the help at cornerback. Plagued by off-field problems in the past, he returned from a year-long suspension to make a dozen tackles as a backup in 2009. A 5-11, 175-pound speedster, with good cover skills, he played some wide receiver early in his career, a testament to his versatility and good hands.
Watch Out For .... the battle between Perkins and Hall at free safety. Both can contribute at this level, a luxury for the staff. Does it go with the safer, more experienced veteran or does it turn loose the former blue-chipper, with the Taylor Mays physique? While it might wind up being a no-lose situation for the ‘Cats, it’ll still be plenty interesting to monitor.
Strength: Pass coverage. With Wade playing the role of lockdown corner, the Wildcats can basically seal off half the secondary for opposing quarterbacks. And that’s not necessarily smooth sailing, with athletes, like Benjamin, Perkins, Golden, and Hall, roaming the defensive backfield. Arizona has consistently had one of the Pac-10’s better pass defenses, ranking third in the league a year ago.
Weakness: Red zone D. This has been a concern now for two years running. Tough to navigate in the middle of the field, the secondary became quite vulnerable as opponents drew closer to the goal line. Arizona was 92nd in red zone touchdown conversions and yielded 19 scoring passes, including three each to Washington, Stanford, and Oregon.
Outlook: Arizona has had a knack for adapting on the fly in the secondary, and this fall will be no different. Yes, a few new players need to step up, but the program has recruited well enough to handle the changes. With Wade supported by a nice mix of veterans and young athletes, the Wildcats will again harbor one of the league’s tighter pass defenses.
Projected Starter: The Wildcats are bucking to have one of the Pac-10’s most complete special teams units … again. It all begins with senior P Keenyn Crier , who’s looking to bounce back from his worst season in Tucson. After earning all-conference honors his first two years, he dipped somewhat in 2009, averaging a career-low 41.5 yards. Still, he has outstanding leg strength and enough experience to be considered an asset to the defense.
Arizona also returns its regular kicker, junior Alex Zendejas . The latest in a long line of placekickers from this family, he has the leg strength and accuracy to go along with the pedigree. In his debut as the replacement to Jason Bondzio, he connected on 17-of-22 field goals, shaking off occasional inconsistency to lay a nice foundation. Like Crier, he has a huge leg, and the right preparation and mindset to be calm under pressure.
Watch Out For… the return men. The Wildcats are blessed with a handful of dynamic specialists capable of sparking the return game and intimidating opposing coordinators. On punts, junior Bug Wright took one back and averaged 17.5 yards, which would have ranked him third nationally had he qualified. Senior Travis Cobb was second in the league in kickoffs returns at 25.4-yard and also had a touchdown. It’s a combination that’ll serve Arizona well all season.
Strength: Leg strength. Strictly in terms of distance and leg drive, Crier and Zendejas might win a competition against any kicking duo in the nation. Both have good size and outstanding drive through the ball, a boon to both sides of the ball.
Weakness: Punt coverage. It wasn’t just Crier in 2009. The punt team, in general, had a rough season and needs to bounce back this fall. The ‘Cats were a miserable 113th nationally in punt coverage, giving up a whopping 13 yards a punt. No team in the Pac-10 was more generous.
Outlook: Assistant Jeff Hammerschmidt has all of the ingredients for one of the better special teams units in America. Crier and Zendejas form an explosive kicking tandem, and the returners are threats to go the distance. If punt coverage can be tightened up, this will be one of the underrated strengths of the 2010 team.