Defensive backs have often been under the microscope over the years at Arizona. A program that has generated big names such as Chuck Cecil, Chris McAllister and Antoine Cason, UA has been known to produce talent good enough to succeed at a high level professionally.
Under head coach Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, that shouldn't be expected to change. A system predicated on speed and intelligence, the defensive backfield should benefit from the arrival of the new coaching staff.
The cornerback position alone is an area that should see improvement. Despite the loss of Trevin Wade, cornerback should see its production increase as it becomes more accustomed to a system that tailors to their specific individual skill-sets. In addition, the defense as a whole receives a boost with the return of Jonathan McKnight.
McKnight was a standout last offseason before tearing his ACL right before the start of the season. He was expected to start and contribute big, but his injury set the entire defense back. It's difficult to predict just how much his presence would have affected what turned out to be a very bad year for the secondary, but he certainly would have helped in some fashion.
McKnight showed a high level of play last offseason during practices and scrimmages. Assuming he is back to 100 percent by the beginning of the season, he should be able to prove himself in 2012.
Shaquille Richardson had a strong freshman campaign in 2010 and while he had his moments as a sophomore, the 2011 season was up-and-down for Richardson. He finished the season with 47 tackles – two for loss – and four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He also broke up five passes and forced a fumble.
He also struggled to cover elite receivers. Players like Justin Blackmon and Robert Woods were able to have their way with Richardson when he covered them one-on-one. In order to have a big year as a junior, Richardson must improve against the top-tier wide receivers he faces.
How much Richardson improves as a junior depends on how quickly he adapts to the new scheme. Richardson has proven to be a capable cover-corner and he could have a big year in 2012 if he is able to grasp the scheme and philosophy of the new staff.
As a redshirt freshman a season ago, Jourdon Grandon had a solid campaign for a player forced to take on several different responsibilities. Whether it was lining up on the outside or taking over the responsibilities of a nickel back, Grandon was able to produce well in his first year of action. He finished the year with 36 tackles – one behind the line of scrimmage – and one interception. Grandon also broke up four passes and forced a pair of fumbles.
Cortez Johnson is another candidate for playing time at the cornerback position. As a true freshman, Johnson saw limited action. He collected 16 tackles and broke up a pass as a backup and special teams player, but in 2012 he will look to battle for more playing time or possibly a starting job. Johnson is another player that showed signs of being a consistent contributor at some point during his college career.
Soon-to-be junior Derrick Rainey has been finding it difficult to crack the rotation since he arrived on campus, but he should have a better opportunity to do so this offseason. Not that it will be an easy task to accomplish, but Rainey has less competition standing in his way than in previous years. Last year, he appeared in seven games for the Wildcats, collecting a mere two tackles.
The trio of freshmen that Rodriguez landed from the 2012 class should contribute at some point but it would be a surprise to see them crack the rotation at cornerback in their first year on campus.
Bryan Harper from Ontario (Calif.) Colony is a superb athlete who can assume numerous responsibilities across the football field. Harper was recruited by multiple schools at various positions and he could factor in at corner for the Wildcats. Rodriguez was unsure where he was going to place Harper when he discusses his signees on letter-of-intent day, but the chance to play in the defensive backfield during his collegiate career is there.
Jamar Allah is another cornerback from the 2012 class that should make an impact down the road. Rodriguez likes his size and it could make his transition to the college game a bit smoother.
The athletic William Parks is a player that brings a strong combination of size and athleticism. He has the tools to line up all over the field and could be a versatile player in the defensive backfield once he is ready to contribute at the college level.
There certainly is talent along with a little quality depth, but the cornerback position is an area that needed a little more for the future. Now with quality players in place in the present and athletes with potential for the future, cornerback could soon be a position of strength for UA once again.
State of the Roster: Cornerback
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