Shaquille Richardson's very high highs and his low lows were no more in 2013. As quickly as his successful senior season went by, suddenly the Arizona Wildcats' defensive coaches are hoping they can replace the enigmatic cornerback who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Former walk-on Jared Tevis steps into the spotlight as the rock and captain of Jeff Casteel's experienced secondary following a stellar 2013 campaign, but the pressure right now is on the coaching staff filling in that very important cornerback position -- maybe more.
Key losses: Shaquille Richardson, Derrick Rainey, Derek Babiash (transfer)
Key returners: Jared Tevis, Jonathan McKnight, Jourdon Grandon, William Parks, Jarvis McCall, Devin Holiday, Tra'Mayne Bondurant**
Key newcomers: Cam Denson, Patrick Glover (JC transfer), Kwesi Mashack
Jarvis McCall looks to be the answer at the cornerback slot opposite of Jonathan McKnight. It comes by way of a little luck on top of what's obviously McCall's hard work. Rich Rodriguez had five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor and Naijiel Hale expected to compete for immediate starting snaps, but the Wildcats pulled out of their offer to Hale and Tabor decommitted right after he gave his verbal on national TV. McCall, a redshirt freshman, has the inside track on Salpointe Catholic freshman Cam Denson as a bigger, more physical cover corner who has changed his body since last year.
The sure-fire starter at the other cornerback slot, McKnight, can do as Richardson did a year ago and finish his topsy career into a future contract. The senior once called by Mike Stoops as the best defensive player on the squad lost a season to an ACL injury before returning to mixed results during the last two years.
At free safety, Jourdon Grandon returns with a wealth of experience since Stoops' firing in 2011. Consistency is the issue for the undersized but hard-hitting safety -- wrapping up and not going for the big hit sometimes led to bad things in the past.
Tevis will man the bandit safety spot, where he'll drop back into coverage to help the corners cover deep routes, or be pushed up into the box to stop the run. The Canyon Del Oro High School product is the leading returning tackler and was third on last year's squad behind linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers. Tevis also led the Wildcats with three forced fumbles in 2013.
Then there's the issue at the spur safety position. Tra'Mayne Bondurant's status remains unclear as he works his way back from nearly being off the squad entirely (prompting RichRod's now infamous "If he was a turd, we would have flushed him" comment). Arizona would prefer he does do enough to return after acting as a hybrid linebacker who blew up screens and led the team with four picks on the year. But whether he returns or not, expect William Parks to do some heavy lifting at the spur slot and perhaps elsewhere as Rodriguez aims to go deeper into his group of backups.
Additionally, newcomers Denson, Glover and Mashack all could find themselves taking on some reps beyond special teams duties because of the search for depth.
There aren't many household names in the defensive backfield, and Tevis' place as a leader says a bit about the low expectations coming from the national perspective, such as that from Paul Myerberg at USA Today. The loss of Richardson could hurt if McCall et all aren't up for the gig, and Bondurant putting himself in this position certainly doesn't make it easier for Rodriguez.
Still, the Wildcats do have some experience, and it will be on Tevis, Grandon and McKnight taking steps forward in their senior seasons to keep the secondary steady.