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After opting out in 2020, Christian Young ready to take on key ‘Viper’ role for Arizona

arizona-wildcats-christian-young-2021-opt-ankle-viper-don-brown-dudzinski-houston-injury-spring Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

When Christian Young made his return to the Arizona Wildcats in the winter, it wasn’t just to a new coaching staff. It was also to a new position.

The junior, who opted out of the last handful of games last season due to a nagging ankle injury, is in line to serve as the “Viper” in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defensive scheme. It’s a hybrid between the safety role Young has played for much of his UA career and linebacker, and it’s arguably the most important position in Brown’s pressure-filled attack.

“He’s a guy who’s got to do all three phases,” linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski said Saturday of the Viper spot. “He’s gotta be able to rush the passer, he’s gotta be able to stop the run, be on the second level, first level, and also be able to go back on the third level, handle some man coverage.”

That all sounds great to Young, who’s just happy to be back playing after a 2020 season that saw him only appear briefly in the opener against USC before he eventually decided to return home to Houston for the remainder of the fall semester.

“I can’t be more grateful for another chance to play football,” Young said Saturday. “Missing football made me realize this is where I needed to be.”

The 6-foot-2, 214-pound Young said he suffered the ankle injury in preseason camp, and it never improved. After playing a few snaps against USC he decided rehabbing the injury was best.

Now 100 percent, he’s relishing the opportunity to take on such a critical role for a defense that was abysmal in his absence. Arizona allowed 39.8 points per game, eighth-worst among FBS teams that played in 2020.

Young has appeared in 24 games in his UA career, which is fourth-most among current Wildcat defenders, and he’s made eight starts. Six were at safety during the first half of 2019, while as a freshman in 2018 he made a pair of starts at cornerback.

That part of the Viper role appears to have come naturally to Young, but early on Dudzinski said he’s also seen Young fare well with the at-the-line work.

“During all the workouts and watching him, we’ve liked his athleticism,” Dudzinski said. “The thing we didn’t know was how physical he’d be on the line of scrimmage. I’m real happy with what he’s done so far. He’s been outstanding. He’s got good weight room numbers. Great burst. Real good COD, change of direction.”

Dudzinski said Young, redshirt junior Rourke Freeburg and redshirt freshman John Burton have spent the most time at the Viper spot, which in Brown’s Michigan tenure was most played by the likes of Jabrill Peppers and Khaleke Hudson.

“I felt like it was a fun position,” Young said. “I’m a safety but sometimes I’m in the box blitzing. There’s a lot of roles with the position, a lot of things you can do, a lot of flexibility.”