University of Arizona vs UCLA (copy)

Veteran UA cornerback Jace Whittaker (17) is back for a final season after missing almost all of 2018 because of injuries.

The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the latest installment.

No. 10: CB Jace Whittaker

Height/weight/year: 5-11, 195, redshirt senior

Key 2017 stats*: 46 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 INTs, 13 PBUs

Comment: Notice that asterisk right there? Whittaker didn’t compile any statistics last season because he barely played.

Whittaker entered what was supposed to be his final season with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two games. He returned against Southern Utah, only to suffer an elbow injury – on the first defensive series – that would sideline him the remainder of the year.

The Wildcats weren’t better off without Whittaker.

Without its soundest, most seasoned cornerback, Arizona experienced upheaval at the position. The UA used six starting combinations at the two cornerback spots, including four in the final five games. The fill-ins included a graduate transfer who parted ways with the team in midseason (Tim Hough), a freshman safety (Christian Young) and a walk-on who’s no longer on the roster (Azizi Hearn).

Without Whittaker playing alongside him and stabilizing the secondary, returning starter Lorenzo Burns’ play suffered. Burns had 81 tackles and five interceptions in 13 games in 2017. Last year he had 39 tackles and no picks in 10 games.

So it was a significant development when UA coach Kevin Sumlin confirmed in December that Whittaker would be returning for a fifth season. He hadn’t previously used a redshirt year. It was like adding a recruit – with extensive experience – to the 2019 class.

Given how valuable Whittaker seems to be, you might be wondering why he isn’t higher on our list. The main reason is that Arizona appears to be in much better shape at the position.

Sophomore McKenzie Barnes was one of the standout performers of spring practice, culminating with a two-interception outing in the spring game. Barnes got “a little worn down” late last season, according to Sumlin, but seems to be in a better place physically and mentally entering Year 2.

The most buzzed-about player in spring was freshman cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace. Roland-Wallace couldn’t play in the spring game because of a hamstring injury but made quite an impression in previous practices. Assuming he stays healthy, Roland-Wallace appears to be a lock for a spot in the corner rotation and a sizable role on special teams.

Incoming freshman Bobby Wolfe, meanwhile, was one of Arizona’s highest-ranked recruits, earning a four-star rating from 247Sports.

If all of those young players pan out, or even two of three, the Wildcats will have better cornerback depth than they’ve had in years. They’ll be able to withstand an injury to Whittaker or Burns.

Of course, Whittaker offers at least one thing none of the underclassmen can: experience. He’s also, pound for pound, one of the toughest guys on the team. And he might have the highest football IQ of any Arizona defender.

The Wildcats missed Whittaker’s presence as much as his production last season. He just makes everything fit right.

With Whittaker in the fold, Burns doesn’t have to bear the burden of being the No. 1 cornerback. The young corners can ease their way into the lineup.

None of that was possible last season. Sometimes you don’t appreciate a player’s value until he’s unavailable.

MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.