It’s as if the Arizona Wildcats made a trade — with themselves.
The offense sent DaVonte’ Neal to the defense for a player to be named later. It turned out to be Cam Denson.
Neal, a former receiver, is entering his second season as a cornerback. Denson, a former corner, is entering his first as a receiver.
The hope within the program is that the deal will be good for both sides.
“We were trying to figure it out,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “And they were probably trying to figure it out. We’ve got them in the right positions. That’s the most important thing.”
Coaches are always on the lookout for players who can play multiple spots. “They’re typically more athletic,” receivers coach Tony Dews said.
But sometimes it takes a while to figure out where they fit best.
A big-time recruit from Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, Neal began his college career as a receiver and returner at Notre Dame. He transferred after his freshman year, sat out the 2013 season and played receiver for Arizona in ’14.
However, other than as a punt returner, Neal did not make a significant impact. He averaged just 7.9 yards per catch on 27 receptions. He wasn’t feeling it.
“I found myself watching the defense all the time,” Neal said. “It’s not that I didn’t like offense. It’s just that I felt my heart was in it (more) on defense.
“When I thought about defense … I was really anxious to get out there. On offense, I was just kind of going through the motions. I think defense is a really good fit for me.”
Neal suggested the switch to Rodriguez in February 2015. The coach signed off on it, and Neal began working at cornerback that spring.
Neal started 11 games there last season, accumulating 63 tackles, six passes defensed, one interception and one fumble recovery. But he did not perform nearly as well as he and others believe he is capable of performing.
“It was tough and frustrating because I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be,” Neal said. “I knew in time I would get there.”
Neal possesses the requisite athleticism and played both ways at Chaparral. But the transition from receiver to cornerback is a difficult one — harder than going the other way, players and coaches said.
The main reason? Simple: At receiver, you’re always running forward. At corner, you’re often going backward.
“Think about it,” the senior said. “When you’re a baby, which way do you go 100 percent of the time? Forward. You never take steps back unless you’re falling.
“Now I go from going forward my whole life to doing everything the opposite. I’m backpedaling. My breaks are going backwards. When I turn, I’m turning backwards.”
Neal had to learn a whole new set of techniques. It took time. So with a second offseason to work at it, does Neal believe he’s gotten a lot better?
“I know I’ve gotten a lot better,” he said.
Neal gives “99 percent” of the credit to his new position coach, Donté Williams. In Neal, Williams saw a terrific athlete who needed to refine the nuances of cornerback.
“They think he’s just supposed to show up and play the position,” Williams said. “Playing corner is a whole different personality, a whole different mentality. It’s totally different than offense.
“Offense, you know where you’re going. Defense, you’re going a lot off reaction; it’s a lot of adjustments once the ball is snapped. Just adding all those little variables into a great athlete is pretty much the biggest thing I’ve been able to do for him.”
Williams said Neal has become a “totally different player” since the start of spring practice.
That’s when Denson’s transition began.
Like Neal, Denson was a ballyhooed recruit. He played both ways at Salpointe Catholic, where he excelled as a receiver and returner.
In a move coaches have described as “unselfish,” Denson began his UA career as a cornerback. As a part-time starter the past two seasons, he intercepted five passes.
But just as Neal’s heart belonged to defense, Denson’s belonged to offense. He began thinking about switching during the 2015 season.
Rodriguez supported the move, and Denson returned to the position where many consider him a “natural.” However, as Denson has learned during his first two seasons, God-given ability only gets you so far at the highest level of college football.
“It’s different here,” Denson said. “So I’m just trying to get comfortable with it, learn the offense, get comfortable with the quarterbacks, learn what they like, what they don’t like.”
Like Neal, Denson remains a work in progress — with one fewer offseason to get acclimated. Dews said Denson understands his assignments now, and he obviously knows defense. The junior needs work on fundamentals, including his get-off and working into and out of breaks.
“He’s growing, he’s developing,” Dews said. But “he’s still just working back into being a receiver.”
Denson faces considerable competition for playing time. Arizona’s top three receivers are set: seniors Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips. Dews is still searching for reliable pass catchers beyond those three, and Denson is just one of several candidates.
He loves the idea of having the ball in his hands again. “Getting a chance to make a move and make a big play for the team, just having that opportunity is a good feeling,” Denson said.
He also knows he has a long way to go to get the point where that’s happening on a regular basis.
“I’m still new to it,” Denson said. “I’m still trying to learn things.”
The player he was traded for can relate.
- Rodriguez canceled practice Wednesday morning after the Wildcats worked out twice Tuesday. They conducted an “active walk-through” Wednesday afternoon. The team is scheduled to practice twice Thursday.