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Arizona football: Wildcats’ 5 most important defensive players in 2017

These five are crucial to Arizona’s success on defense

NCAA Football: Grambling State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats’ defense did a lot more work last season than the box score will show.

Opposing teams were averaging over 38 points a game last season against Arizona, the worst mark under Rich Rodriguez, and the defense struggled to get stops at times, but it was the offense that often went three-and-out, rushing the defense back onto the field.

In 2017, much of the defensive line and secondary return, but there is a glaring hole at linebacker that could ultimately be filled with true freshmen at some point in the season.

There is a lot of leadership on the defense, and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is going to have to call on some of his playmakers to step up.

If these five guys listed below can stay healthy and play to up to their potential, the defense could be in good shape.

5. Jace Whittaker, junior, corner

Jace Whittaker showed flashes of being a lockdown corner last season when his number was called. Whittaker quickly took over DaVonte’ Neal’s role and started in the final seven games of the season.

Whittaker led Arizona in pass breakups with 11, plus tallied 35 tackles and one interception on the season.

In Arizona’s Week 6 loss to Utah, Whittaker was the top performing corner in the nation. He allowed 11 yards on nine pass attempts thrown to his side, and broke up five passes and brought down four ball carriers.

We know what Arizona has with Dane Cruikshank as the other starting corner, a lengthy corner with speed to keep up with some of the fastest receivers in the Pac-12, but with Whittaker, there’s a lot of potential that Yates can extract in his first season working with the cornerbacks.

Whittaker has been able to run with the first-team defense throughout the offseason, giving him valuable reps as he enters into his first full season as a starter.

The 5-foot-11, 180 pound junior has slowly inched his way up the depth chart in his first two seasons, and 2017 might be the year he takes a big leap for the secondary.

4. Tristan Cooper, sophomore, safety

The former two-star recruit came onto the scene last season and was a big piece to Arizona’s young secondary.

The depth wasn’t great, and so safeties coach Jahmile Addae told Cooper during his recruitment process that he would not be redshirted.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound El Paso, Texas product plays an aggressive role at the “spur” safety position. Naturally, the spur position put guys in spots to make plays. The previous spur safeties under Rich Rodriguez were Will Parks and Tra’Mayne Bondurant, two guys who always seemed to find themselves near the ball.

Cooper has a load of potential entering his sophomore season. He’s a big-time hitter that is going to have to come down and make plays in the box, while maintaining responsibility in the secondary.

He finished eighth on the team in tackles last season (35), playing in 11 contests and starting in five. This season, Arizona will be without three of its top five leading tacklers from 2016.

With all of the coaching staff changes on defense, Cooper has been working under Marcel Yates, who switched from coaching linebackers, to now cornerback and the spur safety, and it could be a recipe for success in the 2017 season.

3. DeAndre’ Miller, redshirt senior, linebacker

DeAndre’ Miller has been fighting off injuries the past few years, which has really capped off what was looking to be a very high ceiling for the 6-foot-3, 236-pound linebacker.

And Miller’s health is especially key this upcoming season, particularly due to the lack of experience at linebacker. Arizona will be without its top five linebackers from a season ago.

Aside from Brandon Rutt, there really isn’t another linebacker who has played meaningful Pac-12 reps. Carrington Vaughn made a few appearances last season, but where he truly sits on the depth chart is unknown.

The staff brought in six linebackers in the 2017 recruiting class, two of which enrolled early and practiced with the team this spring, which brings even more question marks to the depth chart.

Miller will have to anchor the group. His 2015 season has been his best thus far, where he started in nine games and recorded 50 tackles, eight for loss, and two tackles, while missing two non-conference games that season.

2. Justin Belknap, redshirt sophomore, defensive end

The defensive line might be the most experienced bunch of this defense, but the most pivotal piece to that line has to be Justin Belknap, who only has 11 career starts to his name.

He came in last season as a redshirt freshman and provided a lot of value to the defense, accumulating 16 tackles (13 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

He entered the program with a high intensity and topped Jack Banda and Calvin Allen on the depth chart.

Say what you want about Arizona potentially having three former walk-ons starting on the defensive line next season, but that shouldn’t be a knock to Belknap, who was finally awarded a scholarship this past Mother’s Day.

Belknap has a lot of potential and this could be breakout year for him, if he can come off the edge and disrupt the backfield.

He’s a lot of fun to watch on the field because he’ll continue to stay in the play and follow the ball. He might be overpowered on the defensive line in a three-man front at times, but he’ll never take play off.

Arizona also brings in two very exciting defensive ends in the 2017 recruiting class, My-King Johnson and Jalen Harris, two of the top in-state pass rushers.

Belknap is a guy on this roster who truly loves football and plays like it, and being able to mentor Johnson and Harris will make this position group that much stronger in the future.

1. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, junior, safety

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is no doubt the best NFL prospect on this roster.

The local Tucson product was originally a grayshirt candidate coming out of the 2015 class, dealing with transcript issues, but was eventually cleared before the season began. Since then, he’s proved to be a valuable asset to this defense.

In 2016, his first year as a starter, Flannigan-Fowles finished second on the team in tackles with 78, just three shy behind the team leader, Paul Magloire Jr. Flannigan-Fowles also came away with two interceptions and six pass deflections. Many of those pass deflections were near-interceptions, too.

According to Pro Football Focus, Flannigan-Fowles is the top returning playmaking safety in the Pac-12.

Playing in the bandit safety role, Flannigan-Fowles has a lot responsibility, especially with a young safety group in sophomores Tristan Cooper and Isaiah Hayes, but after a strong sophomore campaign, Flannigan-Fowles has proved to be a leader on the defense.

In year two as a starter, Yates is going to have to put Flannigan-Fowles in position to make plays.

He’s a rangy, 6-foot-2 safety who can fly across the field and will likely end up leading the team in tackles in 2017.