By Charles Renning
Josh Fields/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason takes down an Oregon player during Arizona's 28-21 loss to the No. 14 Ducks. Cason is one of seven starting underclassmen on the Wildcats' defense.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, October 27, 2005
Experience finally showing up for new defensive starters
Early in the 2005 season, the Arizona football team's defense went through some growing pains. Nine of the unit's 11 starters were juniors or younger, with seven of those players underclassmen.
Now, the defense has come together with two of its best performances of the year in consecutive weeks, and players are dishing out the pains rather than feeling them.
"Our defense has just let loose and started playing with more emotion," said junior safety Michael Johnson, who has 29 tackles (3.5 for a loss) this year, with three pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
In Saturday's 28-21 loss to Oregon, Arizona limited the Ducks to just 10 first downs, 15 below its season average, knocked two quarterbacks out of the game, caused three turnovers and held the Ducks to 180 yards under their per-game average.
A week before, the Wildcats held Stanford to a Stoops-era low of 195 total yards and stopped the Cardinal on 11 of 12 third-down attempts.
Stoops said while he has been impressed with the play of his defense, even more exciting is the unit's youth.
"It gives us a great group to build on," Stoops said. "I think they're gaining confidence as they play and that's a good thing."
We're all starting to figure out who plays how. We're starting to communicate a lot more. It's getting a lot more intense.
- Ronnie Palmer, redshirt freshman linebacker
The Wildcats start two freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and two seniors in their typical defense, Stoops said.
"It's very encouraging," said sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason about the team's young core. "You know that we'll be together for a lot longer. We'll know each other's moves and how we play and where we'll be. That just gives us a lot more confidence to play with each other for a lot more years."
Redshirt freshman linebacker Ronnie Palmer, who returned to the lineup before the Stanford game, said familiarity and communication have been key to the unit's success.
"We're all starting to figure out who plays how," Palmer said. "We're starting to communicate a lot more. It's getting a lot more intense."
Palmer added that the communication wasn't there early in the season.
"That's what you have to do as a team is to come together," Cason said. "It's more reaction, and we're not thinking as much as we used to. We're reacting to what we see and we're not just guessing on the field."
Stoops said the play of the defensive line has also improved, especially that of redshirt freshman Johnathan Turner, who recorded four tackles and his first career solo sack last week.
With all the youth producing for Arizona, there's excitement about the unit's possibilities for the future. Stoops said that although nine starters will return in 2006, the two who won't will leave big holes.
"Unfortunately, the two seniors are Darrell Brooks and Copeland Bryan, two tremendous football players that are going to be difficult to replace," Stoops said
Free safety Brooks and defensive end Bryan lead the team in tackles and sacks, respectively, while serving as leaders on the squad.