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Arizona football: A look at the Wildcats’ defensive backs entering training camp

8th in a series

arizona-wildcats-preseason-football-safeties-cornerbacks-stukes-prysock-yates-maldonado-taylor-2023 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona will begin preseason training camp on Wednesday, Aug. 2, a month of workouts and practices to get the Wildcats prepared for the 2023 season that opens Sept. 3 against NAU.

To get you primed for camp, we’re breaking down each position group on the roster. Today we focus on the defensive backs, looking separately at the cornerbacks and safeties.


Players on roster: 11 (8 scholarship, 3 walk-on)

Projected starters: Treydan Stukes (Jr.), Ephesians Prysock (So.), Charles Yates Jr. (Jr.)

Arizona’s base defense has three cornerbacks, and Stukes is moving into the nickel spot—known as the Star—after starting 12 games the previous two seasons at field corner. The former walk-on accompanied Jedd Fisch and Jayden de Laura to Pac-12 Media Day, with Fisch calling him his “defensive captain” who is playing at 194 pounds this year after starting his career at 168.

Prysock moves into the boundary corner role that Christian Roland-Wallace held down for 35 consecutive games before joining two other Arizona starters at USC. The 6-foot-4 Prysock started three games as a true freshman, and while opponents caught 13 of 17 targets thrown his way he didn’t allow any of the 25 passing touchdowns the Wildcats yielded in 2022.

Yates gets the nod at field corner after a solid spring following his underrated junior college career in California. The Alabama native is only 5-foot-11 but he has great instincts, though he may find himself in a platoon at this position depending on how camp goes.

Top backups: Martell Irby (Sr.), Dylan Wyatt (Sr.), Tacario Davis (So.)

Irby began his college career in 2018 as a running back at UCLA, eventually moving to the defensive side and playing all 12 games in 2021 before stepping away from football for mental health issues. After a year off he joined Arizona in the spring and was heavily involved in the rotation and could play nickel or in dime packages against slot receivers.

Wyatt, a summer pickup out of the NCAA transfer portal, he began his career at Illinois but missed two years because of injury before spending two seasons at FCS Cal Poly. At 6-foot-1 he figures to spell the main corners or be involved when a fourth coverage guy is needed.

Davis played in six games as a true freshman, and in his limited time had the second-best tackling grade on the team (per Pro Football Focus) behind Stukes.

Also expected to contribute: Jai-Ayviauynn Celesteine (R-Fr.)

Known as G7, Celestine did not see the field in his first season but was more involved during spring ball. Also a candidate for return duties, he’d be in the mix to guard slot receivers.


Players on roster: 11 (9 scholarship, 2 walk-on)

Projected starters: Gunner Maldonado (Jr.), Isaiah Taylor (So.)

Maldonado started nine games last season at the Star but now is in line to succeed longtime starter Christian Young at strong safety. His tackling and run defense grades from a year ago were rough, but with more beef on the front line he’s less likely to be having to chase down ball carriers on the second level and in the open field and can focus more on coverage.

Taylor got one start at safety, when Jaxen Turner was out with an injury, but played all 12 games and had nearly 300 defensive snaps. In 164 coverage snaps he only allowed eight catches and forced two incompletions. He’s the son of NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Jason Taylor and his younger brother Mason is a tight end at LSU.

Top backups: DJ Warnell Jr. (Jr.), Dalton Johnson (So.)

Warnell started twice at the Star but at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds he’s better built to play safety, which is where he settled into as a reserve late last year. He had the team’s second best run defense grade, tops of returners, and only missed two tackles compared to 37 from the two starting safeties.

Johnson, one of three remaining members of the 2021 recruiting class that signed immediately after Kevin Sumlin’s firing, should finally see a pronounced role in the secondary after 201 of his 206 snaps last season were on special teams.

Also expected to contribute: Genesis Smith (Fr.), Cruz Rushing (R-Fr.)

Smith has a big frame at 6-2 and 190 pounds, and after standing out in spring ball he’s been invited to Tuesday’s local media day and should be the first of the five defensive backs the UA signed in the 2023 class to see the field. Rushing is the older brother of 5-star edge commit Elijah Rushing, a transfer from Florida who will get a look as part of the rotation.

Next up: Special teams