Our penultimate Arizona Wildcats spring football position preview wraps up the defensive side of the ball.
We’ve examined two positions per day all week leading up to the start of spring practice on Monday. Links to all the other previews can be found at the bottom of this post.
Key returnees: Xavier Bell (6-2, 196, RS SO), Tristan Cooper (6-1, 194, SR), Rhedi Short (6-0, 185, RS SO), Chacho Ulloa (5-11, 194, SR), Jarrius Wallace (6-1, 180, RS JR), Christian Young (6-1, 209, SO), Scottie Young Jr. (5-11, 195, JR)
Key newcomers: Maurice Gaines* (6-2, 193, FR), Jaxen Turner (6-2, 185, FR)
The big question: Do any of Arizona’s safeties have star potential, and if so, who?
It might not have felt like it at the time, but Dane Cruikshank had a breakout season in 2017 for Arizona after being moved from cornerback to safety.
Cruikshank compiled 75 tackles, including 5.5 for losses, five pass breakups, three interceptions and a forced fumble. He became a pro prospect and was selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, something that hasn’t happened often in these parts lately.
(The Pac-12 foolishly did not recognize Cruikshank’s star turn. He didn’t even merit honorable-mention recognition from the conference.)
Moving Cruikshank from corner to the Spur safety spot was the brainchild of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. Yates still has a lot to prove to UA fans as a coordinator, but he has a long, impressive history coaching defensive backs. He knows what he’s looking for and who fits where.
With Yates taking over as the safeties coach this year, he’ll have hands-on involvement with that critical position. He’ll be working side by side with cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin to figure out the secondary’s best five.
Entering spring camp, we see three leading candidates for the starting safety spots.
We’ll start with Cruikshank’s old spot, the Spur. Cooper began the season as Cruikshank’s successor before falling out of favor. By the end of the year, he had become one of the defense’s steadiest performers.
Cooper accumulated 17 tackles and three pass breakups over the final four games – roughly half his production for the season (36 and six). One play in particular gained Cooper notoriety: a devastating hit on unsuspecting Oregon receiver Dillon Mitchell.
We’ve always known Cooper could thump. He’s extremely physical and slightly crazy. What earned him playing time toward the end of the season was improved technique and newfound consistency. Cooper became a much more fundamentally sound tackler. He also showed he could make plays in space.
Cooper might not have had a chance to regain his starting spot if Dayven Coleman hadn’t hurt his knee in Week 3 against Southern Utah. Coleman, who ended up redshirting, is moving to "Mike" linebacker this spring, the Star has learned.
Another 2018 newcomer from Texas, Christian Young, made two starts at a position he wasn’t recruited to play – cornerback. The Wildcats were desperate, and the coaches turned to an untested freshman – a clear sign of trust.
Only three UA freshman surpassed the four-game redshirt limit: Young, cornerback McKenzie Barnes and tackle Donovan Laie. That should tell you something about how the staff felt about those players.
In a part-time role, Young amassed 14 tackles, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery. He’s an early favorite to start at Bandit or free safety – and a strong candidate to break out in 2019.
Scottie Young Jr. likely will man the other safety spot. He has the most impressive résumé of the players we’ve discussed here, and his best work might be ahead of him.
Young started nine games as a freshman in 2017. He was involved in an off-field incident that year and was suspended from team activities from most of the following offseason.
After being reinstated in training camp, Young needed time to get in playing shape. He again made nine starts, recording 38 tackles and a team-high three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Young has shown a knack for making plays since the day he arrived on campus. With another year of experience and an uninterrupted offseason of team-supervised training, he should be able to take his game to an even higher level.
UA SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW