It's a good thing the Arizona Wildcats' secondary has what is often referred to as a "cornerback mentality." You know, there are cornerbacks in there. But really, it's good because Jeff Casteel's secondary is packed with a liberal bunch of guys. Too liberal. Last season, that led to the allowance of too many yards.
Patrick Onwuasor (dismissed from team)
Jonathan McKnight, Shaquille Richardson, Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jared Tevis, Jourdon Grandon, Derrick Rainey
Maybe the Wildcats can forget about last year because of that cornerback mentality.
Seriously, though, there's reason to put faith behind this unit. Look at that list of key returners. Outside of perhaps McKnight and Rainey, these guys all have noses for blood. You know, a quarterback looking down a receiver. A propensity to get into a receiver's head, physically abuse him and then screw up a route or a rhythm. The ability to play the ball in the air. All of it.
It's just that sometimes, Arizona's secondary got burned -- and badly. Marqise Lee's exploits in his record-setting game at Arizona Stadium last year not withstanding. He's a special talent with a special set of legs. Rainey had as good a shot of keeping up with him as you or I when it comes down to it.
But sometimes, the players in the Wildcats' secondary got burned because they smelled blood when there was just ... vegan soy chicken with ketchup in front of them.
Richardson might be the poster boy for jumping receiver routes, but to his credit he's gotten better. And to his credit, he does jump routes when it's called for. He and McKnight return as one of the more experienced cornerback duos in the Pac-12, and if they can find the right balance of aggression and heady play, they could be a very dangerous tandem. Along with linebacker Marquis Flowers, McKnight led Arizona with three picks last year, while Richardson easily led the team with an astounding 15 pass deflections (the next-highest total for an individual was nine).
McKnight, after all, was called the best defensive player two years ago by Mike Stoops before his ACL tear.
Derrick Rainey fills out what should be a three-deep group of corners, and though less athletic than Richardson is listed as his challenger to start for the season opener. Freshman Devin Holiday, a three-star athlete out of Mission Hills, Calif., could push for some snaps behind McKnight.
At free safety, Grandon has the same issues. A former nickelback under more traditional schemes, he's undersized a bit but plays bigger and with more aggression than most.
Most important to Casteel's 3-3-5 is the hybrid duo of Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis, who both help out up front and in pass coverage. Bondurant, the spur, is essentially a linebacker placed here, there or anywhere, and is especially useful in sniffing out screen passes. He was second to Flowers in tackles for loss in 2012 with 11.5.
Tevis, who plays the bandit position, should be fully recovered from a terrible-looking ankle sprain last year. He was third on the Wildcats with 82 tackles in 2012.
Both Tevis and Bondurant fit the same mold as Richardson and Grandon -- and really the whole secondary. Fast-paced, crazy, sometimes too crazy, but often effective. We know the unit's components, and we know what they will each bring in 2013. Perhaps the strength and conditioning program will make the unit faster, more physical. It's clear the mindsets are right for the gigs.
But if the secondary can play a little smarter, and at the same speed as before, that will turn an experienced group of players into a feared one across the Pac-12.