You’ve heard of safety in numbers, right?
The Arizona Wildcats have safeties in numbers — a large, talented group that has grown by one during training camp.
No position better illustrates Arizona’s efforts to improve its depth and raise the level of competition than safety. The Wildcats have at least seven viable options — possibly a conservative estimate — for the three starting safety spots: bandit (boundary), spur (strong) and free.
Safety has looked like a position of strength since the outset of camp, and that was before the coaching staff decided to add another athletic defensive back to the mix. Senior Dane Cruikshank, who started all 12 games at cornerback last season, has been working at the spur position.
The move could be temporary; it could be permanent. Either way, it potentially enhances the versatility of Arizona’s secondary. Cruikshank is plenty big enough (6-1, 206) to play safety. He brings a wealth of cornerback experience and coverage ability to the position.
“We’re just trying to get the best athletes on the field,” Cruikshank said Tuesday. “Make the defense better.”
Arizona has plenty of room for improvement — the Wildcats ranked in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in most relevant categories last season — and having as many multi-talented safeties on the field as possible is one way to slow down opposing offenses. Players who can cover — but also hold up against the run — are invaluable against spread-style schemes.
“You can move us around wherever,” sophomore safety Isaiah Hayes said. “We’re learning all the positions instead of just our own. If somebody goes down, we can put another guy in there, trusting that he knows what he has to do.”
Hayes started seven games, including the final five, at free safety as a freshman last year. Fellow freshman Tristan Cooper started five games at spur. Both are considered up-and-coming players integral to Arizona’s present and future — yet it’s possible neither will start in Week 1.
Freshman Scottie Young Jr. could leapfrog Hayes. Cruikshank could displace Cooper. Neither sophomore would be happy if that happened, but it would be a positive development for the team if they became part of a rotation as opposed to uncontested starters.
“The competition is stiff,” said Jahmile Addae, who coaches the bandits and free safeties, “and that always brings the best out of everyone.”
Said UA coach Rich Rodriguez: “You want your guys to work hard whether there’s true competition or not. But they know if a guy at the same position is pushing them for playing time. That’s the biggest motivator for our guys — playing time. I think that’s elevated everybody in the program.”
The only certain starter at the three safety spots is junior Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who started every game at bandit last year and is probably the defense’s top playmaker. But even Flannigan-Fowles is feeling pressure to perform from freshman Troy Young and redshirt freshman Jarrius Wallace, two other training-camp standouts.
“I want to keep my spot,” Flannigan-Fowles said. “And you want the other guy to continue to get better, because that’s your teammate. It’s good all the way around.”
The newcomers are having the intended impact. Scottie and Troy Young were considered three-star prospects, but they have performed above their recruiting rankings so far. Addae, among others, praised them for their aggressiveness and headiness.
“We recruited these young guys to come in and play,” said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who coaches the spurs and cornerbacks. “Coach (Rodriguez) was very adamant and very clear about that with the young guys and the veterans. He doesn’t want them to defer to the older guys because they’ve been here for longer.
“That message is all around. Our goal is to win. The best people are going to play.”
It’s important to note that whoever starts in September might not necessarily hold the job in October or November. Only Cruikshank and Flannigan-Fowles started from beginning to end last year.
Additionally, Arizona plans to rotate players at as many defensive positions as possible. So even if they don’t start in Week 1, Cooper and Hayes are likely to play significant roles.
Hayes doesn’t view Scottie Young as a threat to his position on the depth chart. Rather, Hayes focuses on self-improvement — getting smarter, faster, stronger and bigger. (Hayes now weighs 193 pounds, 33 more than when he enrolled in January 2016.) It’s how every coach wants every player to approach his craft.
“He’s doing his job. I’m doing my job,” Hayes said. “I compete with myself every day to get better.”
- If Cruikshank does move to spur, redshirt freshman Lorenzo Burns likely would be the top choice to start at cornerback opposite Jace Whittaker. Other cornerback candidates include Sammy Morrison, Malcolm Holland and Antonio Parks. Keep an eye on freshman Tony Wallace, who has come on in recent practices.
- Rodriguez said Tuesday’s practice was just “OK,” noting that the offense was a little bit off mentally. “These are the times you’ve got to push through that,” he said.
Rodriguez said the offensive and defensive lines are focal points in Arizona’s 2018 recruiting class. Among the Wildcats’ 11 commits so far, two are defensive tackles and one is an offensive tackle.
- Asked which offensive players have stood out in camp, Hayes mentioned sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate: “I’m proud to see the progress he’s making, the jumps he’s making in learning the playbook — just going out there and having fun, letting loose. It looks like he’s in high school again.”
- Rodriguez was asked whether there would be more additions to the ever-evolving roster.
“Not right now,” he said, smiling. “Well, give us a couple days. We’ll see.”
- Rodriguez’s weekly radio show will begin Aug. 29 and take place at Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon and BBQ, 1801 N. Stone Ave. It had been at Union Public House previously.