Here is the ninth part of our Arizona Wildcats football preview in collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic.
We write the words, and they have taken the cool photographs and put it all together in a slick presentation at azcentral.com.
Check back here and at azcentral.com every Friday as we roll out more of our preview every week, all the way into August.
This week: I talked with new secondary coach Ryan Walters to get his breakdown of a position group that should be the strength of the defense.
Perhaps the biggest news of the offseason in the Arizona secondary was the surprising coaching changes.
Head coach Mike Stoops, in a bold move, hired arguably the best in the business — former UA assistant Duane Akina — away from Texas. A few weeks later, in mid-February, Akina, citing family reasons, returned to the Longhorns when his old job became available again.
Stoops then went from the veteran savvy of Akina to the rookie coaching of 25-year-old Ryan Walters, who served last season as a graduate assistant, working with the defensive backs.
“I knew instantly he was going to be a rising star in this profession,” Stoops said.
Walters, a former defensive back at Colorado, inherits the defense’s best position group, led by established senior starters Trevin Wade and Robert Golden and a promising trio of sophomores.
He’s a “bounce-back” candidate after a disappointing junior season in which he briefly lost his starting job. Wade entered last season as a legit candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
“Trevin did a great job this spring in putting last year’s performance behind him,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “His practice habits from last fall to this spring were leaps and bounds better.”
Wade, one of the several unheralded recruiting gems unearthed by coach Mike Stoops and his staff, intercepted four passes as a backup in 2008 and picked off five passes as a starter in 2009. He made just one interception last season, and his number of passes defended went from 14 to four.
“He really had an outstanding performance this spring, interceptions after interception,” Walters said.
Golden was fine at cornerback last season after starting at strong safety in 2009. He broke up a team-high 12 passes.
But the Wildcats have plenty of cornerbacks, including a pair of athletic sophomores in Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson — and Golden was needed back at safety full time when safety Adam Hall suffered an ACL injury this spring.
“I just have to adapt to the position again,” Golden said.
Safety might not be as glamorous as cornerback, but Golden said he embraced the change. His
experience and versatility make him a leader in the secondary.
“Safety is probably his better position anyway,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “I think it worked out for the better.”
Flowers, from Goodyear Millennium High School, was the headliner in Arizona’s 2010 recruiting class, arguably the best player from the state. He was a multi-purpose threat in high school, but the UA coaches immediately put his size and athleticism to work on defense as a true freshman.
At 6-3, 220 pounds, he might be the secondary’s fastest player, said secondary coach Ryan Walters.
Flowers’ role, entering the spring, was going to be as the nickel back, but Adam Hall’s ACL injury launched Flowers into a starting job at safety. He made 11 tackles last season in limited duty.
“Marquis is a guy who has to come into his own,” coach Mike Stoops said. “And I think he will this year.”
The hard-hitting junior was projected to be one of the top playmakers on Arizona’s defense this season, but his availability is in doubt because of an ACL injury suffered during spring practice. Hall, who was a two-way star at Tucson’s Palo Verde High School, has a redshirt year available if he can’t make it back for 2011.
As the team gets into camp and he continues his rehab, the coaches might better be able to peg a possible return date.
“We would love to have Adam,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “He was going to be a premier safety in this conference and in college football.”
Hall was the nickel back a year ago, making 54 tackles and intercepting two passes, and his aggressive play gave opposing ball-carriers someone to fear.
With Robert Golden moving back to safety and fellow sophomore Shaquille Richardson sitting out spring because of a shoulder injury, McKnight got all the practice work he could handle in the spring. He absolutely took advantage of the opportunity.
“He got a tremendous amount of reps that he needed, and he was impressive in terms of the improvement he was able to make,” secondary coach Ryan Walters said.
“He was lights-out in terms of practice. He came out to compete, and that competitiveness is what makes him a good corner.”
McKnight, the brother of former USC running back Joe McKnight, played some last year as a true freshman, making 12 tackles and breaking up two passes. From the arrival of McKnight and Richardson, coach Mike Stoops has said they were as advanced as any young cornerbacks he had been around.
The one-time UCLA signee will resume his push for a starting job in camp after sitting out the spring because of a shoulder injury. He seemed to be next in line last season, when he started three games, made 29 tackles, intercepted two passes and broke up seven.
“I expect him to be leaps and bounds better than what he was last year,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “He is still physically maturing.”
Walters said that Richardson has been going through the team’s summer program, putting up good workout numbers under the eye of strength coach Corey Edmond.
Whether it’s Richardson or Jonathan McKnight who wins a starting cornerback job, the other figures to be the nickel back, which is nearly a full-time spot in Arizona’s scheme.
Robbins was an important recruit for coach Mike Stoops in the 2010 class. Not only is Robbins a local kid from Canyon del Oro High who earned Arizona Republic first-team Class 4A all-state honors, but he was a legacy recruit. His father, Randy, is a former UA star defensive back and NFL player, as well as an ex-UA assistant coach.
And Josh has size and talent.
“Josh is a big safety who shows a lot of potential,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “We have to see how he competes in the fall and how fast he picks up the defense on a weekly basis. I definitely expect him to get some playing time this season.”
Robbins redshirted last season as a true freshman.
He didn’t arrive with the same fanfare as some of the other defensive backs in the 2010 recruiting class, but perhaps that’s because he missed nine games as a senior at Avondale’s Westview High School. Still, his past performances helped him land on the Tacoma News-Tribune’s Western 100 list.
Grandon redshirted last season but made a case this spring to earn backup’s minutes at cornerback or at nickel back.
“He had a tremendous spring, and he’s had a good offseason,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters.
Grandon also played quarterback in high school, throwing for 1,526 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior at Westview.
Watley, a redshirt junior, is entering his fourth season in the program, so he should know his way around the defense. He will enter camp vying for time at a safety position, and he should continue to contribute on special teams as he did last season.
“He’s got to show progress in fall camp and be more aggressive,” secondary coach Ryan Walters said. “We need him to be more aggressive.”
Others to watch in the secondary include sophomore cornerback Derrick Rainey and incoming freshman safety Cortez Johnson, who seems to have the size and physical skills to contribute right away.