Sept. 17, 2010
By Jeremy Hawkes
Arizona Athletic Media Relations
No matter where you compete, losing a defensive coordinator and seven defensive starters following an eight-win season that included a prominent bowl game appearance would be plenty cause for concern heading into the next year. For the Arizona Wildcats, that’s exactly the situation they faced following the conclusion of the 2009-10 football season.
So where does the rebuilding process start following such losses? Look no further than an area that doesn’t need much building to begin with.
Enter defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed.
The two will enter the season highly regarded as being among the best defensive end tandems in the Pacific-10 Conference – if not among the best in the country. And for a team in dire need of an anchor on the defensive side of the ball, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Reed said about what it was going to take for the defense to rebound from the offseason losses. “And it just so happens that the defensive ends are one of our biggest strengths.”
Despite being so highly touted coming into the season, the fifth-year seniors have done a pretty good job of hiding under the radar for the past three years. Neither has earned Pac-10 All-Conference first or second team honors and both rose to the top thanks to breakout seasons serving as coming-out parties.
For Reed, it was the 2008 season that saw him play in and start all 13 games en route to eight sacks, three forced fumbles and 37 tackles – a far cry from the seven tackles, half a sack and seven games played he saw as a freshman.
Coming into his junior campaign last season, Reed was regarded as one of Arizona’s biggest threats on the defensive side of the ball, garnering attention on the watch lists for both the Hendricks (top collegiate defensive end) and Lombardi (top collegiate defensive lineman) Awards. And so when Reed went down with a high ankle sprain in the third game of the season against Iowa, it’s easy to see how crippling the loss could have been.
But the loss of Reed may have, in a sense, been a blessing in disguise for the Wildcats. It allowed for Elmore to emerge from the woodwork after a spotty first two seasons to put together a breakout season of his own.
Elmore would go on to lead the Pac-10 in sacks for the regular season with 10.5 in addition to logging 44 tackles - second among UA linemen. He had two sacks a piece in games against Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona State and earned All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention accolades by the coaches.
“It gave me a lot of playing time to come into my own,” Elmore said of taking over in Reed’s absence. “After my sophomore year – which was pretty spotty and inconsistent – it really gave me a chance to work on a lot of things and become the player I am now.”
Reed, too, noted the change in Elmore’s demeanor following his injury even if he wasn’t able to enjoy the fruits of a full season.
“It was kind of fun watching Ricky out there destroying the right side,” he said. “And it was tough missing five games like that; you get out of shape. So the goal has been just to rehab the ankle and come back so we can do it together again this year.”
With Reed back to form and Elmore returning from a dominating season, it’s safe to say that the two won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. If their reputations hadn’t already betrayed them, the physical prowess of the two will surely give them away.
Reed, at 6-3 and 262 pounds can be seen just about anywhere on the field as his signature blonde locks fly behind him while Elmore at 6-5 and 250 pounds has a habit of going as hard as he can and making himself a permanent presence in the opponent’s backfield.
It is that speed and athleticism that is going to be pivotal two the defense’s success this season, the two agree, especially in a year where talent in opposing quarterbacks is at a premium.
“The more pressure we can put on the quarterbacks, the more beneficial it will be for the rest of the defense,” Elmore said. “It’s our job to be in their face and make them feel uncomfortable and try to force their hand a bit.”
And while arm passing skills are certainly one of the strengths the Wildcats will face in the conference, Reed says the team must also take note that many of the quarterbacks in the Pac-10 can do plenty of damage without letting go of the ball.
“A lot of the guys have good arms but they can be pretty mobile so we can’t be out of control out there,” he said. “We can’t be opening up gaps so they have room to run and that’s one thing we have to be aware of.”
Making the job as easy as possible for one of the numerous newcomers on defense will be one of the focuses for the tandem. While playing integral roles this season on the defensive line, they will be the first to tell you that it takes more than just two players to get the job done.
Knowing that being a force on the outside can force the opposition into quick throws that the secondary can pounce on or forcing them up the middle for linebackers and defensive tackles lying in wait can play a big role in the squad’s success this season.
“Being fifth-year seniors, we have a lot to uphold and really have to be leaders by example out there,” Elmore said.
“Having the experience that we do and the talent that we do is going to be important to helping the defense as a whole.”
“A lot of the guys are looking up to us,” Reed echoed. “During the season they are going to expect us to make a play and that’s a role that’s going to be important to us.”
And the aim of the game is to push the team and the defense as far as they can go, Reed says. The ever elusive Rose Bowl is something the players feel is a very strong possibility, a fact that seemed laughable to the native Tucsonan just a couple years ago.
“I’m just glad I’m a part of (where the program is at now),” Reed said. “I grew up coming to the games when they were struggling and it’s just cool now to be out there starting, trying to make a difference and getting the program where it should be.”
Reed and Elmore have both seen and played a large part of turning the program to the better and it’s that experience that Elmore feels is going to make all the difference in their final seasons together.
“We work well together, you know, playing together for five years and the camaraderie that comes from that,” he said. “I think we are at the top of the Pac-10 and that’s come from hard work and overcoming adversity. You have to start somewhere.”
“You have to start somewhere.” The phrase was echoed by both of those impressive ends and serves as a one of the most practical statements regarding the defense coming into the season. Needless to say, starting somewhere becomes much easier with the likes of the dynamic duo of ends leading the way.