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Safeties first: Trio of sophomores become cornerstone of Arizona defense

Jared Tevis

Sophomore safety Jared Tevis has been part of five turnovers in four games. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Back in spring, the three players who now form the Arizona Wildcats group of starting safeties were a walk-on, a guy on suspension and somebody the former coaching staff kept on the bench for half a season.

All sophomores, Jared Tevis, Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jourdon Grandon have been the cornerstone of the Cats’ new 3-3-5 defense.

“It’s probably the most productive part of our defense,” coach Rich Rodriguez said of the safeties.

Start with Tevis.

The walk-on from Canyon del Oro High School played last season on special teams and he impressed the new UA coaches in the spring, but it would have been impossible to predict his fast start to the season:

Thirty-nine tackles in four games, five pass break-ups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

“I had big goals coming into this season,” said Tevis, who was put on scholarship this summer. “I had a lot of goals in my mind that people wouldn’t have even been thinking of before the season.”

Now, he never leaves the field, also playing on special teams.

“That kid the other night played 90 plays (against Oregon),” safeties coach Tony Gibson said of Tevis.

“And he was playing as hard as he could from play 1 to play 90. He was wearing out wideouts. He was knocking helmets off. He’s just a tough-ass kid who does everything we ask him to do. He plays with a chip on his shoulder.”

Tevis plays the “Bandit” safety position, which is something like a strong safety spot. Bondurant is the “Spur” safety, more of a hybrid safety/linebacker who gets to be a disruptive force in the backfield. He leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss.

“They are doing a heck of a job right now, and they should in this defense,” Gibson said. “In this defense, we kind of highlight these guys to make those plays.”

Based on what we saw last season, we knew Bondurant could be a playmaker. He got his first extended chance as a true freshman in 2011 after Mike Stoops was fired at midseason.

Interim coach Tim Kish put Bondurant into the starting lineup against UCLA, and he responded with eight tackles. Playing as a linebacker/nickel back, Bondurant went on to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors while essentially playing half a season.

“You would look at him on the street and wouldn’t think he’s a great football player by any means,” Gibson said.

“But he has a knack for the ball. Knows where he’s at. He maneuvers his body in ways you can’t even coach. It makes my job a lot easier.”

The only things big about Bondurant (5-10, 207) and Tevis (5-10, 197) are the chips on the shoulders. They play with a certain edge, combined with smarts and uncommon instincts. Rodriguez credits these two, plus junior linebacker Jake Fischer, as being able to quickly diagnose plays and get to the ball.

“A lot of the better players as you go through time, whether it’s Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Tedy Bruschi or Chuck Cecil, I bet all those guys had that one genetic gene that allowed them to trigger things in their mind a step quicker than the average guy,” Rodriguez said.

Grandon, the free safety, falls under the tutelage of cornerbacks coach David Lockwood. Grandon came back from a spring suspension for his part in an off-campus fight and claimed the starting spot in fall camp. He has four pass break-ups.

Grandon played cornerback and safety last season, starting four games.

“He’s a tough guy,” Rodriguez said.

“He’s a physical guy who is a very good athlete. He’s still learning. We’ve moved him around a little bit, but I think we’ve found a home for him and he’s pretty solid there.”

Rodriguez is in one-game-at-a-time mode, so he’s not thinking of how this trio of sophomores could all grow up together in the next couple of seasons. What’s more, cornerback Jonathan McKnight is a sophomore. The other cornerback, Shaquille Richardson, is a junior.

There’s a promising future in the secondary, with Tevis and Bondurant, in particular, manning those playmaking safety positions.

“Jared probably could have been our player of the week in every week so far,” Rodriguez said. “He and Tra’Mayne, they just have a feel for the game.”

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