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Cornerback depth, versatility quietly becoming Arizona’s strength

Perhaps we have a new combination of starters this season

jace-whittaker-arizona-wildcats-east-west-shrine-bowl-college-football-senior-all-star-st-petersburg Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats had a less than ideal cornerback situation last season.

Position coach Demetrice Martin was hit hard and early in his first season. Jhevon Hill failed to qualify and make it campus, Tony Wallace did not qualify after one season, Tim Hough was kicked off the team after a few short weeks, and senior leader Jace Whittaker was out for the entire season after suffering a pair of injuries.

Martin worked with what he had, threw some true freshmen out there, converted some safeties and put out a solid group considering the circumstances. Now at full health, the group brings back two veteran guys, some talented youth and a load of versatility.

“We have enough corners,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates joked after practice on Saturday. “How about that? Now our depth at corner has grown and that’s helped us out tremendously.”

Whittaker returns for his fifth and final season as one of the core leaders of the locker room. Often his playmaking goes unnoticed, as the ball is hardly thrown to his side. The advanced stats and analytics make you appreciate how good Whittaker is in coverage.

After being thrown into the fire as a freshman, Lorenzo Burns has progressed well, but can be inconsistent with timing and ball location in man-to-man.

That’s where McKenzie Barnes steps in, who ended up playing a significant role last season as a true freshman.

He’s a long, athletic corner at 6-foot-1 and showed that he’s ready to make a jump after getting some valuable reps. With Barnes progressing, and Burns potentially reaching his ceiling, I’d expect Barnes to start taking more significant reps and forcing his way onto the field.

This gives Arizona three talented, rotational corners, with four new pieces into the mix from the 2019 signing class.

After a late push from USC, Christian Roland-Wallace remained firm to Arizona and enrolled early. He put together a stellar spring at corner and seems likely to be on the two-deep. Roland-Wallace was an exceptional playmaker in high school, and at the very least can compete as a return man on special teams or run down on kickoff.

At one point Bobby Wolfe was a four-star prospect throughout his recruitment, and was one of the last members to fill in the 2019 class. Arizona originally introduced him as a safety and while he’ll likely be able to work with both groups, it’s probably best to have to him start at corner. He was not able to enroll in the spring, but he enters fall camp with just as much athleticism as anyone in the secondary.

Both Roland-Wallace and Wolfe have zero college experience, but one has already shown he can compete all throughout spring practice and the other enters the program with supreme talents.

If Barnes can’t unseat Burns for the starting role, I expect Roland-Wallace to make a case, and it’s hard to rule out a talent like Wolfe once he gets the practice regiment down.

One of my favorite pieces of the 2019 class is Maurice Gaines. Gaines has great strength and size for a corner, already has an additional year of maturation from prep school as well as a spring under his belt at Arizona.

Christian Young showcased his versatility last season after switching from safety to corner when depth was in a pinch. While he is now starting at bandit, you at least know there’s a last resort to move some pieces around.

Another safety, Troy Young, has bounced around the secondary for the last few years ranging from free, bandit and corner. A strong, fast corner that can provide pressure at the line and throw off timing, and has make up speed stemming from his running back and track days in high school.

Perhaps we have one last dark horse in the mix with Samari Springs, the Richmond Spider transfer. He started at both safety and corner last season, and the reason for the move to Arizona is very interesting considering he solidified playing time at Richmond.

“Springs is a guy who jumps out, he moves well,” Yates said when asked about defensive backs who have caught his eye.

At the very least, you know it’s depth with experience, but I get a feeling that he could come in and contribute in 2019.

What was once a depleted group a year ago now comes back with a good mix of returning experience, superb newcomers and a wildcard transfer.

Martin did not get enough credit for his work with the corners, overshadowed by Joe Gilbert and his terrific offensive line

In year two for Martin, the corners are quietly one of the better position groups with room to grow throughout the 2019 season.