Through five games, the most disappointing part of the Arizona Wildcats’ defense has been the pass coverage, or lack thereof, especially by the corners.
Under the new defensive staff, every other group has made noticeable strides, so is it concerning moving forward? We discuss in the first of our roundtables for this week.
Jason Bartel: Has the play at corner this year been surprising given the other defensive position groups have obviously improved?
Gabe Encinas: A little bit. Donte’ Williams had a top two passing defense in each of his last two seasons at SJSU and I would think a lot of that has to do with his coaching. Still, for me, DaVonte’ Neal isn’t a corner, but merely an athlete, who didn’t really even work out on offense either. Cam Denson is another guy who is also in that athlete boat, just flipping to offense from defense. It makes you think what the situation would have been like had he not flipped to receiver.
Dane Cruikshank has been able to hold his own, but has been battling injuries while rotating in with Jace Whittaker. Williams loves what he has with Whittaker and he seems to be a little more confident now that he’s getting in the rotation. Then you have guys like Sammy Morrison who just completely fell off the map after starting his first career game and dealing with his own injuries.
But next year there will be six defensive backs, three of which can project to be corners with Greg Johnson, Malik Hausman and Scott Young -- all guys hand picked by Williams. Then you have the potential to bring in 4-star corner and top 50 recruit Thomas Graham, who I still think is Arizona bound, but wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame comes in.
David Potts: A little, maybe, but the corner position was expected to be a weak spot in the Arizona defense. As Gabe pointed out, next year’s recruiting class has six (!!!) defensive backs. Not all of those players project at corner, obviously, but the fact that the coaching staff has put such an emphasis on recruiting defensive backs shows that they recognized, even before the year started, that they needed help.
Alec Sills-Trausch: I think it’s a manifestation of the subpar defense as a whole. Cornerbacks are the only position that can get exposed on defense and have it actually matter. While the DB’s could definitely do better, Arizona was never able to corral Josh Rosen, allowing him to scramble around the backfield long enough to find an open receiver down the field. That’s not necessarily the cornerbacks’ fault. Offenses practice scramble drills each week while defenses can only adapt on the fly, putting them at a huge disadvantage.
If we’re going to call out any group, it’d be the D-line and linebackers. They need to not only apply pressure but also wrap up as well. Once that happens, the cornerbacks won’t look so bad.
Drake Horner: Cruikshank has been solid, Neal not so much. It has been surprising, but with the way they are recruiting DB’s you have to think that the staff isn’t happy with the group it has going forward. I keep waiting for the day Neal gets a pick-six and has a good game and shuts everyone up with his play, but it just hasn’t happened. Most people are calling for him to be benched, but the players behind him aren’t much better. Marcel Yates is doing a great job with scheming for this defense and most years under Rich this defense would be enough to win games, but with players going down left and right it’s hard to get consistency on offense. This leads to the defense being on the field more than it should be.
Brandon Combs: A little. Cruikshank has shown how talented he is and has improved every week; so much so that opposing QBs are taking notice and not really throwing his way much. DaVonte’ Neal has not been so hot. He has blown coverages and missed open field tackles that have allowed for big plays. Opponents have noticed and it showed when Josh Rosen kept throwing to Neal’s side, exposing him. Jace Whittaker stepped in and although he has shown some good things this year, he was not so good against UCLA. Donte’ Williams has to work more with Neal and Whittaker in order to stop this issue or it's going to continue to bite Arizona down the road.
Ronnie Stoffle: I would have to say the corner position has been the most underachieving defensive unit. Dane Cruikshank has been a pleasant surprise but DaVonte’ Neal has been a bit of a disappointment. I feel like he has major moments followed up by some head-scratching moments. As for Jace Whittaker, the growing pains are still there. He looks the part at times, but overall there is still quite a bit of development needed. I would love to see the younger guys like Antonio Parks and Lorenzo Burns get snaps because they are key for the future.
Ryan Kelapire: I don’t think many believed Arizona’s cornerback play would be good this season considering how poor it was in 2015, but I think we still expected to see some improvement. But other than Cruikshank, the Wildcats’ cornerbacks have been underwhelming. Neal hasn’t been good and hasn’t improved and none of the other corners have emerged.
Arizona has been fortunate that its front seven (six?) has actually been fairly decent at generating a pass rush, because they’ve prevented the UA’s corners from being totally exposed.