Arizona safety Christian Young makes a shoestring tackle on Colorado defensive back Ronnie Blackmon on a kick-off return in November.

Sophomore Christian Young is on track to be the Arizona Wildcats’ starting Bandit safety this season. He made his first career start last year at a position where he hadn’t practiced until a few days before the game.

Arizona was in a bind entering the UCLA game. Starting cornerback Lorenzo Burns was hurt. Tim Hough was no longer on the team. The coaches decided their best options were a pair of freshmen: Young and his roommate, McKenzie Barnes.

Barnes had been at corner all season. Young, who had been backing up Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles at Bandit, got a crash course that week from cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin.

“Me and Coach Meat, we were meeting every day,” Young said after practice Thursday. “He’s a good coach. Everything he harped about, I got it. I appreciate him doing that for me, putting me out there.”

Young made one additional start at corner the following week against Oregon. It wasn’t a completely new experience for him; he had played corner as a junior at Foster High School in Richmond, Texas. Still, getting those assignments showed that the coaching staff trusted him.

Young moved to safety as a senior, and he possesses the size (6-1, 209) and instincts to excel at the position.

Young is receiving hands-on coaching from defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who is now working with the safeties. Young believes that will make him a better player.

“I’m trying to focus more on what the whole defense does so I can know where everybody’s supposed to be at,” said Young, who had 14 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery as a freshman.

“I feel like with Coach Yates (in the safety room) that helps me because he knows the whole defense. He harps about where we need to be and what type of plays we need to be making.”

Young signed with Arizona under the previous coaching staff and considered transferring after Rich Rodriguez was fired. But once the UA hired Kevin Sumlin, Young was “all in.”

“I believe in the process,” he said. “We’ve got some really good coaches. I feel like we’re going to have a way better season than what we did last year.”

Turning a corner

Injuries decimated Arizona at cornerback last season, and it’s impossible to predict whether they’ll strike again. But as of now, the Wildcats are in much better shape at the position.

With Jace Whittaker back from injury, freshman Christian Roland-Wallace looking like a keeper and classmate Bobby Wolfe on the way, cornerback could develop into one of Arizona’s deeper groups.

“I think we’ve got some guys that we can rotate in there depending on matchups,” Martin said. “We’ve got some pieces that we can mix and match. The (variable) is keeping those guys healthy.”

If everyone is available, Whittaker is expected to start opposite Burns. Martin believes Arizona’s improved depth will help Burns on two fronts.

“It’s pushing the level of competition up, which Burns needed,” Martin said. “He doesn’t have to worry about doing everybody else’s job. He can just do his job.

“I think he’ll be a lot more solid this year. He can just take a deep breath … and ball out.”

Junior Troy Young and sophomore Barnes should be significant contributors. Young moved from safety to linebacker to corner last season. That’s an unusual route, but he seems to have found a home at cornerback. His size (6-0, 205) and strength enable him to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. Young also has “very good” straight-line speed, Martin said.

Barnes was one of three freshmen who played more than four games last season. (Christian Young and offensive tackle Donovan Laie were the others.) Martin said Barnes has shown significant growth this spring. He’s working on shedding the scar tissue from last season’s growing pains.

“But that goes with being a corner,” Martin said. “He’s gotta get over that hump. He’s playing a lot more confident. He’s talking. Those type of things are what you want. He has his swag back, as they say.”

Wolfe will arrive in Tucson with a “very confident personality,” Martin said. There had been speculation the four-star recruit from Houston would play safety, but Martin said the plan is for Wolfe to start out at corner.

“To me, it seems like it’s always easier to teach the new guys the defense from the corner position,” Martin said. “Their responsibilities are mostly getting told to them by the safeties. Then, as they progress, we can start cross-training them.”

As last season proved, you never know when you might need it.

Leg up for Aragon?

Senior Matt Aragon is stating his case to be Arizona’s punter.

Special-teams coordinator Jeremy Springer is adamant that no starters will be decided this spring. But Aragon is the only punter on the current roster, and that gives him something of an edge entering training camp.

Aragon split time between punter and receiver at Cienega High School and did the same for portions of his UA career. This spring, punting has been his sole focus.

“He’s got a lot of upside,” Springer said. “He’s long, he’s tall (6-foot-5), he’s got a fast leg, he’s athletic, he’s got great hands. We’re just working on some technique stuff.”

Aragon will be pushed in summer by a pair of incoming freshmen: Kyle Ostendorp and Cameron Weinberg. Ostendorp is on scholarship and will be given every opportunity to win the job. Weinberg, a walk-on, has lofty credentials as well.

Aragon, who recently became a father, is entering his fifth and final season at Arizona. He has appeared in only one game, punting three times at Washington State in 2016. He averaged 38.7 yards per attempt with a long of 53.

“He’s been training his (butt) off. He wants to be the guy. Because of that, he’s pushing himself,” Springer said.

“He’s gotta go through this offseason, continue to get better and we’ll see what happens from there in fall camp.”

Extra points

  • Walk-on cornerback Azizi Hearn, who started the final three games last season, is no longer on the roster.
  • The team conducted a relatively brief, no-pads practice that began with a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s spring game. The scrimmage begins at 5 p.m. at Arizona Stadium. It will be televised by Pac-12 Networks.
  • Practice concluded with a two-minute drill. Freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell led the second-team offense down the field, but the unit came up just short of the end zone. Khalil Tate, running the first team, connected with Devaughn Cooper for a 3-yard TD on a fade route.
  • Roland-Wallace and defensive tackle Jalen Cochran were limited to side work. Defensive lineman JB Brown did not participate.

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.