With a new defensive coordinator in Johnny Nansen, Arizona naturally has a different scheme this season. The front “seven” will often be six, with just two linebackers, leaving five defenders on the back line.
The personnel in the secondary is pretty much the same as it was in 2022, though the positions are a little different. Gone is Don Brown’s “viper” hybrid linebacker/safety spot, and in its place is a nickel defender that will play more like a safety than a third corner.
“You’re more down in line of scrimmage more,” safeties coach Chuck Cecil said Tuesday after Arizona’s sixth training camp practice. “You’re not playing in as much space, so you got to make some quicker decisions. Being closer to the line, you got to be a little more physical. You really do.”
It looks like sophomore Gunner Maldonado will be handling that job, which means he’ll need to improve on his performance from 2021. He started six games at safety last season, registering 36 tackles with an interception and a forced fumble, but he was also tagged with 13 missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus and his tackling grade (28.0) was worst among all UA defenders who logged 100 or more snaps.
Maldonado, who said he was “excited” to learn he was getting put into a new role, said he’s making the most of splitting his time between Cecil and cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker.
“Amongst the two of those guys, that’s a lot of years of football experience, so I just try to be a sponge and soak in everything,” Maldonado said. “Coach Walker he holds me to a high standard and I appreciate that, that’s what I’m trying to play. And Coach Cecil, he just has a great energy about him. He’s one of the reasons I came here.”
Maldonado said how he approaches his assignments will depend on the tendencies of the player he’s lined up against.
“Definitely I’m ready to get some hands on if it’s a bigger tight end, and then if it’s receiver I’m ready to get going downfield,” he said.
Second in line for the nickel spot is sophomore Jaydin Young, who made seven starts at safety last season.
Cornerback depth getting tested
Sophomore corner Treydan Stukes is “gonna be out for a little while,” Walker said, due to an undisclosed leg injury. Stukes was not in uniform Tuesday, his right leg in a sleeve while he used a crutch on his left side, and while unable to practice he did get in some work at the end of the session by doing pushups (while wearing a backpack) while the rest of the team ran sprints across the width of the field and back.
“I told him to attack rehab, attack rehab like he attacked practice and we’ll just see where it goes,” Walker said.
Stukes’ absence means more first-team reps for junior Isaiah Rutherford, while freshmen Tacario Davis and Ephesians Prysock could get more looks as well. Same goes for senior Isaiah Mays, whom Walker said would return next week from an undisclosed absence.
“We just want to try to develop all the guys that we do have because you never know when you’re gonna need them,” Walker said.
Marquee matchup takes a turn
The best one-on-one matchup in training camp thus far has been between highly touted freshman wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan and junior cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace. The latter had held the former in check during the first few days of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, but with full pads and live tackling introduced on Tuesday it was T-Mac’s turn to win the battle.
McMillan had a few very nice catches over Roland-Wallace, an honorable mention Pac-12 preseason pick who has started 23 consecutive games, while also shining when matched up against other defenders.
The practice competition figures to only help both, coaches say, though Walker said he’s made sure to remind Roland-Wallace to remember who’s in charge.
“I said, don’t let this little young freshman beat you, that’s not a good thing,” Walker said. “So we just try to keep on his toes. T-Mac is a really good player to be a freshman so I said hey, who’s the veteran and who’s the rookie.”
Roland-Wallace, never one to be too talkative, shrugged off questions about a rivalry.
“We’re just both competitors, and that’s what we do every day,” he said. “Regardless of who lines up from across me I’m gonna give everything that I have.”
- While the status of Stukes and Mays is better known, the same can’t be said for defensive tackle Dion ‘Tank’ Wilson Jr. or running back Jalen John. Wilson wasn’t in full uniform on Monday and did not participate Tuesday, either, while John has been absent for several days.
- Returning to the team, though, was freshman corner Jai-ayviauvynn Celestine, otherwise known as “G7,” who had missed the first few practices. He’s still ramping up, though, and was in shorts.
- The players are off Wednesday, with the next practice set for 10 a.m. PT Thursday. Friday’s workout is earlier, at 9:15 a.m. PT, and presumably will be lighter ahead of the first preseason scrimmage at 10 a.m. PT Saturday.