During his first season with the Arizona Wildcats, Patrick Onwuasor developed a reputation for being, as teammate Marquis Flowers says, "interactive."
Onwuasor was frequently either the instigator or the finisher in practice scuffles. Built - he stands 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 212 pounds - and bruising, he brought a hit-them-first mentality to a position, wide receiver, not typically known for aggression.
It didn't take long for the Wildcats' "dark side" defense to summon him. The redshirt freshman opened his second training camp last week with both a new jersey number (4) and position (safety), and a better-than-ever chance to play.
Coaches are hoping Onwuasor's physicality will help a unit that's seeking a hard edge. Onwuasor said the move was a natural fit.
"That's what everybody says: 'You like to get after it.' That's my style," Onwuasor said. "Now, I really have to get after it. Now that I'm on 'D', I have to be a headhunter. On the field, nobody's friends. It's time to go to work."
Here are four reasons why Onwuasor could be a successful safety:
1. He's played the position before. Onwuasor signed with the UA in 2010 as a wide receiver, but many scouts viewed him as a better defensive prospect.
The Scout.com recruiting service rated Onwuasor as the nation's 56th-best safety coming out of Inglewood (Calif.) High School; Nebraska, Miami (Fla.), Washington and Oregon State all offered him scholarships to play defense.
It didn't take long for Rodriguez and his staff to identify, like many had before them, that he'd be better at safety. Onwuasor had six interceptions as a senior at Inglewood, with three of them coming in one game against Beverly Hills.
"All the schools that offered me told me that I'd get to the NFL playing safety. I never believed them," he said. "Now it's time to see if it's going to happen."
2. There's a need. Onwuasor was nursing a high-ankle sprain in spring drills when Adam Hall, an upperclassmen and one of the team's projected starters, suffered a knee injury that will cost him the 2012 season. Coaches immediately asked Onwuasor to consider a switch; the move was made official over the summer. He'll compete for one of the three safety spots in the Wildcats' new 3-3-5 "odd stack" scheme. The Cats' lack of depth in the defensive backfield means Onwuasor could play sooner than had he stayed on offense.
Safeties coach Tony Gibson said, "Patrick wanted to be able to contribute to the team, and we felt his best chance was on defense."
3. He can hit. Anyone who battled with Onwuasor in practices last year knows he can hit, whether he's blocking downfield or getting chippy during plays. The natural physicality - and inherent hard edge - are two traits that can't be taught. While aggression can be a liability at receiver, it's treasured in safeties.
"He's a big threat," cornerback Shaquille Richardson said. "He was always one of the major threats on offense when it came to hard-hitting (plays) and competing. To have him over here, it's real good."
4. He's learning. For all the strides he's made through the first week of training camp, Onwuasor still has to improve significantly simply to see the field. So far, though, coaches are encouraged with his raw tools.
"I'm learning the plays, getting a feel for it and rolling with it," he said. "Now that I'm learning the plays, it's kind of easy. I just have to play faster and play hard."
• Arizona's first daytime practice of training camp was a sloppy one, leaving coach Rich Rodriguez frustrated for the third day in a row. Asked how to fix things, Rodriguez responded with one word: "Work."
"We have high expectations with the way we practice," he said. "If you have a magic solution, I'd like to hear it."
• The UA will hold its first of five practices at Fort Huachuca this morning, continuing an annual trend started by Mike Stoops in 2008. Players will stay in Army barracks on the installation, and coaches and support staff will stay in a Huachuca City hotel. The four-day stay is designed to bring the team closer together.
"Being around the people who risk their lives for us means a lot to us. At the end of the day, we're up there to play football," quarterback Matt Scott said. "Coach Rod says when we come back we should be a complete team, and I think that's true."
Training camp: Day 6
At Kindall/Sancet Stadium
• Temperature at start: 88 degrees at 8 a.m.
• Walk-on watch: Place-kicker Jaime Salazar returns to the team as a walk-on after spending the 2011 season on scholarship. He appeared in three games as a junior, connecting on 1 of 4 field goal attempts and 7 of 8 PAT kicks.
• The big number: 5. Number of times the Arizona Wildcats will practice at Fort Huachuca over the next three days. The team will hold two-a-days today and Saturday, with one practice scheduled for Friday. The practices at Warrior/Sentinel Field are closed to the public but open to Fort Huachuca residents and soldiers.