2006 Outlook - Defensive Secondary
Arizona's defense for the past two years has featured one aspect -- leadership in the secondary. Departed safety Darrell Brooks, a first-team All-Pac-10 pick his senior year, took care of that.
He's gone, but the defensive unit again will draw on the experience and savvy of the defensive backs. Head coach Mike Stoops and coordinator Mark Stoops are working to bring the other levels of the defense into more focus, and the strength of the linebacking corps and defensive front may well be Wildcat defensive hallmarks this year. But there's little question that some personalities and experience in the backfield will be key to the team's persona.
Junior cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot have started all 22 games in their careers and played every snap. That's reasonably unheard of, and should change as the program develops more players. Coaches' faith in their skills has kept them on the field. "Those two guys played every snap of every game -- that's experience," Stoops says.
Senior strong safety Michael Johnson joined the Cats at mid-year as a juco All-American a season ago, missed much of spring ball with injury, then came on strong and beat out a defensive leader in Lamon Means to take the job down the stretch. His athletic talent and nose for the ball earned him national player of the week honors after his three interceptions (along with three more by his DB colleagues Brooks, Fontenot, Cason) helped UA win at Oregon State. He added a fourth two weeks later to take the team lead against Cason's three picks.
No question the UA secondary was tested, time and again. That's the Pac-10. But stacked up against counterparts, the Cats ended up rated No. 2 in pass defense, fourth in pass efficiency defense and fifth in total defense. Not quite championship caliber, but vastly improved. That's the byword of Arizona football in Stoops' tenure -- improvement. Arizona has closed the gap in a lot of ways and defense certainly takes its place alongside emerging offensive firepower.
With Brooks gone, identifying the replacement in back row remains a key focus. As coordinator Mark Stoops put it, "Darrell did so many of the little things you don't always notice. It's easier to notice them with him gone, but we'll be okay."
"Our secondary has to be the glue behind everything we do (defensively)," Mike Stoops says. "Michael Johnson, Antoine Cason, Wilrey Fontenot ... they all have to play better. I think they're capable of playing to the highest level of anyone in this conference. Those guys have all-conference type of abilities, but need to be more consistent."
Stoops, whose coaching background is heavily defensive secondary and therefore spends some hands-on time helping his brother, said sophomore Brandon Tatum, who had the speed and talent to letter on special teams as a true freshman a year ago, and junior two-year letterman Dominic Patrick figure to contend for the free safety role in spring and beyond. They'll face some stiff competition in August from newcomer Nate Ness, a first-team JC All-American at El Camino College where he earned a national profile as a playmaker with 19 career interceptions.
Redshirt freshman Corey Hall also will contend for time at free safety, while sophomore Michael Klyce will back up Johnson. 2005 letterman (as a receiver and kicking unit starter) Gerold Rodriguez auditions at corner in spring and fall camp.
Ness was just one part of a full secondary signed for 2006 by the staff. Cornerbacks Devin Ross and Michael Turner, and strong safety Cam Nelson also will arrive with full sets of credentials, notably All-America and Best in the West honors by Ross, considered among the nation's top prospects out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.. Turner (Manteca, Calif.) and Nelson (Dallas) were first-team all-state picks in states full of high-profile guys. If any of these players have the drive and focus Cason did in his first year in the program, the secondary is more blessed off the bat than could be anticipated.
The key for this unit is the same as for all, developing quality depth. The Stoops brothers don't handle drop-off well. Basically
Antoine Cason, 6-0, 182, Jr.
Wilrey Fontenot, 5-9, 174, Jr.
Gerold Rodriguez, 5-11, 175, So.
Devin Ross, 5-11, 180, Freshman
Michael Turner, 5-11, 170, Freshman
Michael Johnson, 6-2, 205, Sr.
Michael Klyce, 6-0, 193, So.
Brandon Tatum, 6-1, 181, Sophomore
Dominic Patrick, 6-1, 207, Jr.
Corey Hall, 5-10, 182, R-Fr.
Nate Ness, 6-2, 190, Junior
Secondary Smidgens... The Cats played plenty of nickel defense in 2005, using safety/linebacker Marcus Hollingsworth as a starter in seven games. He's back in the linebacker corps but will be ready for duty and turned in a number of big plays and 41 tackles... Dominic Patrick also played some hybrid action in the secondary in '05... Cason earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2005, turning in the three interceptions, 50 tackles and five PBUs... Fontenot had two picks and a team-high six PBUs, plus was fourth on the club with 51 tackles... Johnson was an honorable mention all-league selection and turned in 60 tackles to lead all players in the secondary, plus knocked down four passes to go with his four interceptions, second in the league... Stoops said Brooks (among a half dozen guys) had a good chance to be selected in the NFL draft, maybe around the fourth or fifth round. He'd be the first defensive back drafted out of UA since cornerback Chris McAlister in 1999... Mike (1981-84) and Mark Stoops (1986-88) both played safety at Iowa, and stuck with the trade in their coaching careers...