Arizona ended the decade with its best defensive line since the late 1990s, but this was one of the major problem areas for the team this decade. The Arizona Wildcats were the only Pac-10 team this decade to not have a first-team all-league defensive lineman.
USC had a first-team all-league defensive lineman 11 times this decade. Oregon State was next with seven. The Wildcats haven’t had such a player since Joe Salave’a in 1997.
TucsonCitizen.com’s picks for Arizona football’s all-decade team on offense.
What the Cats have had this decade are two of the best at their position in the entire league — linebacker Lance Briggs (first-team all-conference in 2000, 2001 and 2002) and cornerback Antoine Cason (winner of the Jim Thorpe Award in 2007). Take your pick: One of these guys is your Arizona Defensive Player of the Decade.
Not to influence your selection, but Cason was chosen to SI.com’s All-Decade team in college football.
Note that one of the most prominent UA alums — New York Giants mega-millionaire linebacker Antonio Pierce — is absent. First of all, he played at UA for only one season of the decade (2000) when he had an honorable mention all-league season (77 tackles, 10 for loss). Good, not great.
Defensive end Joe Tafoya also played only year this decade, and it was nearly good enough to make the list. He was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2000, making 18 tackles for loss, which is a season high for Arizona this decade. (In general, I preferred an all-decade candidate who had a longer resume for the time frame.)
The defensive line is where there could be the most debate, mostly because there are few standouts. Others considered were Tafoya, Marcus Smith, Young Thompson, Yaniv Barnett, Louis Holmes (well, not really) and Ricky Elmore, whose 10.5-sack regular-season is fresh in everybody’s mind.
Here are our choices for UA’s All-Decade team for defense:
DE — Copeland Bryan (2002-05)
A very nice walk-on find for Arizona, Bryan developed into an NFL-caliber player by the time he left, coming up with 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss as a senior. Finished with 14 career sacks.
DT — Lionel Dotson (2004-07)
“L Train” started 20 games in his first three seasons — a solid, if unspectacular performer in the middle of the line. He then played his way into an NFL prospect as a senior after a season with 50 tackles, including nine for loss and 6.5 sacks. That earned him second-team All-Pac-10 honors.
DT — Earl Mitchell (2006-2009)
Spent his first two seasons as an underused fullback/H-back/tight end before making the switch to defense. Big Earl had 40 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, in his first season at the position before earning second-team all-conference honors in 2009, making 12.5 tackles for loss with 6.5 sacks — big numbers for an interior lineman.
DE — Brooks Reed (2007-09)
Why Reed and not Elmore? Fair question. Reed missed about five games this season with an ankle injury, during which time Mike Stoops repeatedly referred to Reed as the team’s best pass rusher and kind of the glue of the line. Always a high-energy player, Reed ended up with two sacks and five tackles for loss, coming off a sophomore season in which he had eight sacks and made honorable-mention all-league.
Lance Briggs tackles ASU quarterback Andrew Walter in 2001/Tucson Citizen photo
LB — Lance Briggs (1999-2002)
Briggs nearly de-committed to USC on Signing Day 1999, but the Sacramento kid once described as the next Tedy Bruschi became one of the great Wildcat defenders. After playing running back as a true freshman in 1999, Briggs requested a move back to linebacker, where he posted 113 tackles as a sophomore, earning the first of three consecutive all-conference honors … which really says it all. He led the team in tackles (93 and 98) in each of the next two seasons before going on to a successful and lucrative career with the Chicago Bears.
LB — Spencer Larsen (2002, 2005-07)
Well-liked, well-spoken and a coach’s dream, the hard-working Larsen was the team’s defensive newcomer of the year in 2002 and then left for a two-year church mission. He overcame a knee injury upon his return in spring 2005, managing to pick up where he left off. Larsen had 131 tackles as a senior in an All-Pac-10 season, and his 312 career tackles are the most for a UA player this decade (and 15th-best all-time).
LB — Ronnie Palmer (2005-08)
More steady than flashy, Palmer started 41 games in his UA career. The middle linebacker led the team in tackles (85) and tackles for loss (11) in 2008, giving him career marks of 275 stops, including 21 for loss.
Antoine Cason returns an interception for a touchdown aganist Cal in 2006/Tucson Citizen photo
CB — Antoine Cason (2004-07)
He was the face of the Wildcats for a couple of seasons — photogenic, good with a quote and bringing a confident air to his battles with the league’s best receivers. Highlights include a 39-yard fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown that fueled a 24-20 upset of No. 8 Cal in 2006, and scoring twice — on an interception return and a punt return — in a 34-24 upset of No. 2 Oregon in 2007. That latter game — on Thursday night on ESPN — propelled Cason to the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. His 15 career interceptions are fourth in UA history.
CB — Michael Jolivette (2000-03)
He’s the UA career leader in passes broken up (44), despite missing most of his junior season because of injury. He also was able to corral his fair share of passes, coming up with 12 career interceptions. Current UA sophomore Trevin Wade might end up being a better player, but had only one season as a starter this decade.
S — Darrell Brooks (2002-05)
His leadership and on-field play helped guide the Wildcats through some tough times. A four-year starter, Brooks made 295 tackles and four interceptions, earning second-team all-league honors as a junior and first-team recognition as a senior.
S — Michael Johnson (2005-06)
The junior college transfer was a key recruit for coach Mike Stoops, and he gets the nod here on the strength of his second-team All-Pac-10 season in 2006. Johnson had 107 tackles in two seasons, with five interceptions, and his physical style of play has served him well with the NFL’s New York Giants.
AP — Syndric Steptoe (2003-06)
Finished with 3,931 all-purpose yards, ninth in school history. He had 131 career catches for 1,584 yards; he scored twice on punt returns and returned 80 kicks for an average of nearly 22 yards.
P — Danny Baugher (2002-05)
A starter for nearly all of four seasons, Baugher has the highest season-average in school history — 47.5 yards on 37 attempts in 2005, when his season ended in the seventh game because of an ACL injury. He was leading the nation in punting at the time. His 225 punts are a school record.