Key returnees: McKenzie Barnes (6-1, 178, SO), Lorenzo Burns (5-10, 181, RS JR), Malik Hausman (6-0, 174, RS SO) Azizi Hearn (6-1, 193, RS SO), Malcolm Holland (5-11, 189, RS SR), Jace Whittaker (5-11, 189, RS SR), Troy Young (6-0, 205, JR)
Key newcomers: Chris Roland* (6-0, 190, FR), Bobby Wolfe (6-2, 170, FR)
The big question: What does it mean to have Whittaker back, and what did Arizona miss while he was out of commission?
Stability. Intelligence. Leadership. Toughness.
Those are some of the attributes Whittaker offers. He doesn’t have great length or amazing speed. But he’s smart and gritty and possesses a knack for making plays.
Whittaker appeared in only one game in 2018, which was supposed to be his last season. He missed the first two weeks because of a hamstring injury. He returned against Southern Utah. On the first series, he hurt his elbow. He never returned.
Without him, the field cornerback position became a revolving door. Four other players started at that spot. Over the final five weeks, Arizona used four different corner combinations.
Burns started 10 of 12 games on the boundary side. He performed adequately. But there’s no question he was a more effective player when he had Whittaker as his partner in 2017. Burns had five interceptions that year. He had none last season.
Whittaker’s presence just makes everything fit together better. Burns doesn’t have to carry the burden of being the No. 1 corner. The younger players don’t have to play before they’re ready.
When Burns was injured and graduate transfer Tim Hough left the team before the UCLA game last year, Arizona had to start two true freshman — Barnes and converted safety Christian Young.
(The Wildcats also were missing Khalil Tate and Layth Friekh that night … and lost by one point. That one point turned out to be the difference between making a bowl game and staying home.)
Arizona is adding three freshmen to the mix year — four defensive backs in all, positions subject to change — and they’ll benefit from having Whittaker around to show them the way.
Whittaker could have joined the mass exodus from the UA program this offseason. He graduated in December. He could have transferred to another school without having to sit out. Or he could have gone pro.
Instead, Whittaker elected to return, taking advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule. (Whittaker would have been granted a fifth year under the old rules given how many games he played last season and when he got hurt. The new rule streamlined the process.)
When he speaks to the media during spring camp, Whittaker probably will cite “unfinished business” when asked why he came back. The last time he spoke, last August, he talked about he great he felt.
Ironically, Whittaker said this in regard to goals for personal improvement: “I wanted to get bigger, stronger, so I could last a little longer through the season.”
Despite bulking up to about 190 pounds, Whittaker didn’t last. His injury luck was dreadful.
Now Whittaker gets a second chance, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll return to the form he displayed in 2017, when he started all 13 games, intercepted three passes and broke up 13 others.
Beyond the on-field production, Whittaker is somebody the coaches can trust. That’s vitally important, especially with veterans such as Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Isaiah Hayes no longer part of the secondary.
Whittaker needs to get his work in between now and the start of the season, but the coaches would be wise to manage his reps. They found out last year what life is like without him.