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A way-too-early Arizona football spring depth chart: Defense

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arizona-wildcats-spring-football-practice-defensive-depth-chart-predictions-college-fisch-2021 Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will begin spring football on Tuesday, marking the first chance to see what new coach Jedd Fisch and his staff have planned for the 2021 season.

A couple of weeks ago, I put together an offensive depth chart. This time, it’s the defense’s turn.

NOTE: This depth chart is based purely on my conjecture.


Defensive Tackle

  • Starters: Trevon Mason/Aaron Blackwell
  • Backups: Kyon Barrs/Regen Terry

Notes: This was once a position that did not have any depth. That is not the case for 2021. The fact that 2020 did not count towards players’ eligibility helped in a big way.

Mason was Arizona’s best defensive lineman last season, besides Roy Lopez Jr. He was stout against the run and decent in pass rush, though he will need to take a step forward in that category. Funny enough, he was VERY good as a pass rusher in 2019, where as he took a step back in 2020.

Blackwell mainly played as a defensive end in 2020, but I expect him to move inside in Don Brown’s defense. He is an aggressive lineman and got good penetration last season. I do think that the scheme may have hindered him though. Dr. Blitz’s defense should change that.

Moving to the backups, we find Barrs. He took a big step forward in his play and production in 2020 and should easily be able to snag the starting spot in 2022. Luckily for him, he will be coming into this season as a sophomore still. Plenty of time for him to reach his full potential.

Terry is someone I can see cracking the rotation this season. He played in limited action in 2020, but he has the size and skill to earn playing time early. He was dominant at Florence High School, however, he was playing off the edge. With his size now, coupled with the explosiveness he has, I expect him to have a good showing this season.

Alex Navarro-Silva is another player to keep an eye on as well.

Defensive End

  • Starters: Jalen Harris/JB Brown
  • Backups: Paris Shand/Jason Harris

Notes: This should be another strong group for the ‘Cats. Brown’s defense will benefit the starters off the edge.

Jalen Harris is without a doubt one of the best pass rushers on the team. He’s big, long, explosive, and strong. He was a problem coming off the edge last year for opposing offenses and seeing him in this new defensive scheme should be quite the sight. As a matter of fact, he’s been a problem for opposing offenses his whole career.

Brown opted out during the 2020 season and he took full advantage. He comes back to Arizona in arguably the best shape of this life. He is a tenacious pass rusher who is explosive at the snap. That most likely comes from his background as a linebacker in high school. I’m eager to see how he performs after his transformation.

The backups for the ends are also a group of talented players. Shand saw action in four of the five games for the ‘Cats in 2020. He showed some flashes in the time he saw. He was actually the first Wildcat to record a sack, which came against Washington. He has a lot of explosiveness off the snap and has big, long arms that allow him to break tackles. He has good size as well and should be able to hold his own against Pac-12 offensive lines.

Jalen’s younger brother Jason might be too talented to keep on the sidelines after transferring from Colorado. I believe he’ll be able to snag a spot on the 2-deep and be able to garner a good chunk of playing time. Like his brother, he is explosive, long, and big. He will need to gain some more muscle mass, but between Tyler Owens’ strength program and his mother’s mac ’n’ cheese, he should be able to gain more weight.

Another player to watch at this position is Dion Wilson Jr., who saw action last season.

WILL Linebacker

  • Starter: Anthony Pandy
  • Backup: Rourke Freeburg

Notes: Arizona is building some good depth at the backer spots. And that depth allows Pandy to move to a more natural position, at least in my opinion.

Pandy is more effective on the outside, especially rushing the passer. He struggled as MIKE backer in 2020 and moving him back to WILL should bring him a little more comfort. He is pretty solid in pass coverage as well, being the only player for Arizona with an interception last season. Pandy was inconsistent with his tackling last season, so that will have to be one of his biggest improvements.

Freeburg had a breakout year in 2020 playing outside linebacker. So much so, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the walk-on is awarded a scholarship this year. He is quick off the snap and is a good tackler to boot. His background as a safety gives him the athleticism in pass protection that he’ll need. He can also play the VIPER if needed.

MIKE Linebacker

  • Starter: Treshaun Hayward
  • Backup: Derick Mourning

Notes: MIKE backer is in a great state after the addition of Hayward. He is a fantastic grad transfer from Western Michigan who was the 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Hayward is, quite frankly, a tackling machine. After racking up 142 tackles in 2019, he got another 50 in a five game, shortened 2020 season. Having someone with his experience and talent will help shore up the middle of the field for the ‘Cats.

Mourning earned his stripes the hard way in 2020. He had a rough season, though he did show signs of what will make him a great backer. The more he sees the field, the more experience he gains, the better. He has the size and speed you want at MIKE. If he continues to develop the right way, he’s going to have a great career in Tucson.

SAM Linebacker

  • Starter: Jerry Roberts
  • Backup: Issaiah Johnson

Notes: This is another linebacker position that will benefit from an experienced transfer.

Roberts is a big guy, sitting at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds. The transfer from Bowling Green wasn’t as productive as Hayward, but he has still been a successful backer. Coming to Tucson with 15 career starts and 93 career tackles, 7.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks, Roberts has plenty of experience. Having experienced players at each of the linebacker spots will be imperative as Arizona makes the transition to a new scheme.

Johnson opened some eyes with the extended playing time he got during the shortened season last year. He showed solid speed sideline-to-sideline and even did a solid job in coverage. He also reacted quickly to plays and was one of the better tacklers on the team. It was difficult to determine if he’d be better at WILL or DE, but I decided to place him here.

VIPER

  • Starter: Christian Young
  • Backup: Rhedi Short

Notes: The VIPER is a position unique to Brown’s defense. It can be thought of as a mix between and linebacker and safety. So run defense, pass pro, and even pass rush will all be a part of this position. All the players listed above have been good against the run and have shown effectiveness in pass pro. They have good size but are smaller than a normal linebacker or maybe too big for safety and corner.

Young opted out of the rest of the 2020 season after getting dinged up against USC in the first game. He has been stellar against the run in his career and has been above average in pass coverage. VIPER could be a nice spot for him to settle into to finish out his career in Tucson. He can also slide into one of the safety spots if needed.

Finally, we have Short. A starter at safety last season, Short started off the season in a rough way. However, as the season progressed, so did he. His coverage began to improve and he became a more effective player against the run. He did take his lumps but that will give him plenty to improve upon. He is a hard worker so it’s safe to assume he’ll attack any task he’s given. He’s another player I’m eager to see this season.

Cornerback

  • Starters: Christian Roland-Wallace/Isaiah Rutherford
  • Backups: McKenzie Barnes/Malik Hausman

Notes: Corner has some experienced players coming back, even after losing Lorenzo Burns, who is pursuing an NFL career.

Starting with one of the best corners in the conference, CRW has shown his mettle and shown why he won’t be giving up the starting role anytime soon....or ever. He took his lumps as a true freshman in 2019 and held his own. He took a major step forward in 2020 and really did a great job shutting down his side of the field.

The one thing he needs to work on is holding onto the ball for interceptions. He made a fantastic attempt at a possible game winning interception against USC, however, the ball tipped off his fingers and into the hands of the USC receiver. USC scored the go-ahead touchdown shortly after. It was an incredibly athletic play and showed the type of special talent CRW is.

Opposite CRW, we have Notre Dame transfer Rutherford. One of the most heavily recruited corners in the 2019 class, Rutherford saw limited action at Notre Dame in his two seasons with the Irish. He has really good size, coming in at 6-foot and over 190 pounds. He also has the skill and talent to match that size and should be able to carve out a starting role for himself. He is a really good addition for the staff and allows CB coach Dewayne Walker to fill the void now that Burns is working towards his dream.

The backups will include Barnes and Hausman, both of which opted out the rest of 2020 after playing in a couple of games. Both players are really good tacklers but need to continue to improve their pass coverage. They do bring plenty of experience to the backup spots and that can’t be overlooked if they need to come in for CRW or Rutherford.

Another player to watch here is walk-on Treydan Stukes.

Safety

  • Starters: Jaxen Turner/Isaiah Mays
  • Backups: Jaydin Young/Gunner Maldonado

Notes: Looking at the players above, I come to the conclusion that the position group is actually pretty strong.

Turner is an extremely athletic and talented DB. He is a really good tackler and is pretty stout against the run. His one weak spot is his pass coverage, as seen in his struggles in 2020. It has to be noted that he got dinged up a few times last season and played through the injuries. Fully healthy, especially with the large amount of experience he got, Turner has a chance to be a force in the defensive backfield.

Mays is another newer player to the roster that has impressed. He is another player who is a strong tackler and is really good against the run. However, he is also really good in coverage. Mays had a relatively quiet 2020 season, until the UCLA game. He broke out in a big way and really established himself in the defensive backfield. He was all over the field and around the ball fairly often. His best play was a TFL that also resulted in a forced fumble and stopped the Bruins who were driving down the field. His aggressiveness is definitely something that stands out.

Maldonado transferred from Northwestern and should be able to see playing time immediately. He plays extremely fast and has a knack for making plays on the back end. He also is strong against the run and plays aggressive. He played in three games for Northwestern in 2020 and recorded one tackle. He has the talent to land a starting spot but I feel that he’ll need more experience at the P5 level before stepping into a starting role.

Finally, we have Young. He is a walk-on that will most likely earn a scholarship sooner than later. He is a big-time talent that will continue to be refined the more he plays, and based on his 2020 season, he has earned exactly that. He is a strong tackler and really opened some eyes with his coverage skills as well. I’d expect him to really build on the experience he received last season to continue his development in a positive direction.