Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Secondary – Arizona Wildcats

By Sam Saig, August 18, 2009 9:51 am

Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Arizona secondary. After all, the unit was replacing Jim Thorpe Award Winner (Best Defensive Back in Country) Antoine Cason and four-year starter Wilrey Fontenot. But the 2008 Wildcats defensive backfield didn’t miss a beat, finishing with the 14th ranked pass efficiency defense in America.

Two starters return again this season, along with an abundance of exciting new talent at both cornerback and safety. Defensive minded head coach Mike Stoops and his brother Mark (defensive coordinator and secondary coach) have put together a unit that is loaded with elite athletes. Opposing offenses will not find much room through the air against these ‘Cats, as this secondary looks like the strength of an already impressive defense.

Cornerbacks

The marquis performer of UA’s explosive secondary is senior corner Devin Ross. Ross made the post-Cason transition quite easy for Arizona, as he locked down almost every number one receiver he faced throughout 2008. He finished with 50 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and three interceptions on his way to being named second team All-Pac 10.

Devin Ross running at practice

Devin Ross running at practice

At 5-11 175 pounds, Ross is a spectacular athlete with great closing speed (4.4) and nice fluidity when he changes direction. He possesses some of the best ball skills of any cornerback in the conference, making him a game-changing athlete that quarterbacks must be wary of. Last season against Cal, Ross picked off a Nate Longshore pass during the third quarter of a tight 28-27 contest and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown. The Wildcats went on to win 42-27.

The Rancho Cucamonga (CA) native was one of Mike Stoops signature recruits in 2006 (Rivals and Scout 4-star prospect), and he will be counted on to finish his career with another excellent season. Ross has looked great during fall camp, and should challenge for all-conference honors again in 2009.

Sophomore Trevin Wade will start opposite Ross this season. Wade enjoyed a superb redshirt freshman campaign, finishing with a team-high four interceptions as a reserve (sixth in Pac-10). He also made 12 tackles and had three pass breakups on the year.

At 5-11 182 pounds, Wade is built similarly to Ross and possesses comparable athleticism. He is always looking for the ball, and has the range to cover a ton of ground in a hurry. Offenses may test him frequently this season, as opposing quarterbacks will likely hesitate to attack Ross. Nonetheless, the highly skilled sophomore proved last season that throwing the ball his way is a bad idea.

Wade enjoyed a great off-season, which allowed him to claim ownership of the number two corner spot. The Round Rock (TX) native should be the feature CB once Ross graduates, so big things are expected out of him in his first full season as a starter.

Another solid corner that should see plenty of action is junior Mike Turner. Turner was suspended for the entire 2008 season because of team rule violations. The last time he played for the Wildcats was at wide receiver in 2007, and his skill set will be a great value at defensive back.

Turner has excellent speed (4.4), reliable hands, and an understanding of a wideout’s tendencies. He was another gem of Stoops 2006 recruiting class (along with Ross), as Rivals.com gave him a 4-star rating. The Manteca (CA) native has been especially sharp at Arizona’s fall camp, and he will be a primary contributor at corner in 2009.

Safeties

Cam Nelson makes the tackle

Cam Nelson stops the ball carrier in his tracks

Besides Ross, the other stalwart in the ‘Zona secondary is senior Cam Nelson. Nelson has played in 37 games for UA, and he’s started 25 games in a row. The reliable veteran enjoyed an excellent 2008 campaign, totaling 67 tackles (team-high among returning players), three tackles for loss, and five pass breakups. He will now make a move to free safety, after spending most of his career as a strong safety.

At 6-1 202 pounds, Nelson is a powerful hitter who has a versatile skill set. He is adept at stopping the run as well as playing the pass in coverage. While his move to FS may limit the amount of time he spends close to the line, Nelson should still be involved in pressure packages.

The Dallas (TX) native is one of the team leaders, and Coach Stoops selected him to be his player representative at Pac-10 Media Day. Nelson should be the anchor of the defense in 2009, and has looked solid as a rock during fall.

Taking over Nelson’s old position of strong safety will be exciting sophomore Robert Golden. Tucson has been buzzing about Golden since his arrival at UA, and there is a growing contingent that believes he could become the next great Wildcat DB.

As a true freshman in 2008, Golden logged time at cornerback and contributed on special teams. He finished with 13 tackles and gained valuable experience in the process. After switching positions, Golden will now enter the spotlight as a starter.

At 5-11 190 pounds, he is an elite athlete who does everything well. Golden has the speed and quickness of a corner, while also possessing the physicality of an imposing safety. Although he has mediocre size, he’s developed a reputation for being a frightening hitter who can lay anyone out at anytime. Golden is smooth in coverage and has excellent quickness, which should allow him to break on plenty of passes this season.

The Fresno (CA) native was one of the prized recruits of the 2008 class, as he garnered 4-star recognition from Rivals.com, and 5-stars from Scout.com. Golden will be a featured part of the Arizona defense, and should be used in a variety of ways in 2009.

More recently, another heralded recruit decided to join the Wildcats. True freshman Adam Hall fielded offers from around the country, and was recruited as both a receiver and defensive back. His commitment was a major coup for the program, and the defense in particular.

At 6-4 205 pounds, Hall is an electrifying athlete, as well as a true student of the game. He still lacks technique defensively, but has as much upside as any player on the roster. For a player his size he possesses excellent straight-line speed (4.5) and impressive leaping ability (38 inch vertical). Rivals and Scout.com gave him 4-star recognition, and he was also a Parade All-American.

Hall played in the Army-All-American game this past year, showing off a varied skill set on both sides of the ball. He has enormous potential as a safety or even outside linebacker, and may be too good to redshirt this season even with all the depth at safety.

Other players competing for time are: seniors Anthony Wilcox, and Brandon Tatum, juniors Marcus Benjamin (CB enjoying very good fall), Joe Perkins, and Trevor Foster, and freshmen Mark Watley, and Derrick Rainey.

My Take

Every year it seems like the Arizona defensive backs are among the most athletic in America, and this group is good even by their standards. The Stoops brothers have plenty of talent at their disposal; so another productive year seems inevitable.

It all starts with Ross who has next-level ability, and a knack for playing his best when it matters most. He’s as pure a cover-corner as there is in the Pac-10, and should continue to flourish.

Offenses will therefore throw at Wade, right? Well, he’s no slouch either. In fact, he’s a ball-hawk who loves to bait quarterbacks. The one-two punch at corner for UA is quite potent, so pick your poison opposing QBs.

As good as the corners look, safety may be the strength of the secondary. Nelson will provide the steadiness, while Golden will supply the fireworks. Throw in blue-chip freshman Adam Hall, and the UA pass defense may actually improve on 14th nationally in 2009.

Overall, expect this stingy ‘Cats secondary to be as good as advertised this season.

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