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Arizona’s ACL army: Three happy returns

Jonathan McKnight

Jonathan McKnight (No. 6) helps break up a pass Saturday night intended for Oklahoma State’s Tracy Moore. Photo by Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats cornerback Jonathan McKnight raced down the left sideline with an interception last Saturday, reminiscent of Antoine Cason six years earlier.

Same sideline. Same game-defining touchdown. Same part of the game.

“I’ve seen that highlight,” McKnight said of Cason’s 39-yard interception return that was the go-ahead touchdown as Arizona beat No. 8 Cal 24-20 at Arizona Stadium in 2006. “He was a great cornerback; still is a great cornerback with the Chargers.”

McKnight seems well on his way, too.

The sophomore has made a triumphant return after missing last season because of an ACL tear suffered about a week before the start of the season. He’s beginning to look like the player he appeared to be in camp last season: Arizona’s best, most feisty, cover man — and that included Trevin Wade, a seventh-round who made the roster of the Cleveland Browns.

McKnight said his 48-yard interception return on Saturday night closed the door on the rehab part of his career.

“After the play, I wanted to cry,” he said. “It was my first big play coming back.”

McKnight said he doesn’t want to look back now and wonder what might have been. Perhaps former coach Mike Stoops would.

He was missing four potential key defenders last season because of ACL tears — McKnight, linebacker Jake Fischer, safety Adam Hall and defensive lineman Willie Mobley — and a fifth player, defensive tackle Justin Washington, was unproductive because of what was described as a summer stomach ailment and then a late-season knee injury.

Let’s take a look at how these guys are doing for Rodriguez in 2012:

Jonathan McKnight, cornerback

McKnight, bothered by a shoulder injury in camp, didn’t start the opener vs. Toledo but was in the starting lineup for the first time last week.

His interception return for a touchdown came with 10:24 left the game, giving Arizona a 45-31 lead after the two-point conversion.

Arizona was in a blitz that play, with safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant shooting between the right guard and right tackle, who was taken wide by rush end Reggie Gilbert. Linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers also occupied blockers on the other side of the line by taking steps forward before dropping into coverage.

As Bondurant sped on a clear path toward quarterback Wes Lunt, McKnight already had anticipated the ball coming out early, jumping inside on the route run by Jeremy Smith.

“When I broke on the ball, I looked at the receiver and I looked at the quarterback,” McKnight said. “The way he threw it, I knew the ball was coming to me.”

Lunt, forced to throw off his back foot as Bondurant approached, didn’t get nearly enough on the throw. McKnight had the pick and six points.

“He has played physical and he has a great feel for the game,” Rodriguez said. “Jonathan is one of those guys who senses something. He had a great break on the ball and it was the play of the game.”

LB Jake Fischer

Fischer, who suffered a torn ACL late in the 2011 spring game, is tied for fourth nationally in tackles (13.5 per game) and is second in solo tackled (9.5 per game).

That’s a combination of good play — and lots of it. Nobody in the country has been on the field for more defensive plays than Fischer. He, and some of his teammates, has not come out of the game while Arizona has defended 186 snaps, the most in the country through two games.

Fischer, a junior, isn’t complaining, making up for the lost time in 2011.

To use a football cliche, he’s the he’s the heart and soul of Arizona’s defense.

“I know it killed him last year not to be out there,” said safety Jared Tevis. “But you can see the immediate impact he has and the aura he brings with him on the field.”

DL Willie Mobley

Big things always have been expected of Mobley because he started his career at Ohio State. He must be good, right?

He played sparingly in 10 games in 2010, making seven tackles. Mobley tore his ACL after 2011 spring ball while playing pick-up basketball.

He seemed buried on the depth chart for much of camp, but he was a factor as a backup vs. Oklahoma State, making three tackles including one for a loss of 4 yards. That play set up third-and-12, which allowed the Cats to blitz, which allowed McKnight to make his game-changing interception.

“Willie has played pretty well,” Rodriguez said.

“I don’t want to say he’s surprising me, but he’s kind of been climbing up the depth chart. … The last couple of weeks, this last game in particular, he showed up a little bit more. He’s probably going to play a little bit more, too, because of his performance in the game.”

So, those are three happy ACL returns for Arizona.

As for the other two “comeback” players …

“I wish Adam could be out there,” Fischer said.

Hall, who suffered a torn ACL last spring, suffered the same injury to the same knee in this year’s spring game and is out for the season. The last official report on him was that he was rehabbing with the team.

Washington was indefinitely suspended before the season but has been practicing with the team in the past couple of weeks and doing well, Rodriguez said, working his way back into the coaching staff’s good graces and to playing status.

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