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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Secondary, to battle hype, opposing receivers”

    Secondary, to battle hype, opposing receivers

    The Arizona secondary will have one thing to lean on as it tries to live up to the prodigious hype that has seemed to replace senior leader Darrell Brooks: comfort.

    At least that’s what defensive coordinator Mark Stoops expects to see on the field from his two-year junior starters at cornerback, Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.

    “”We study all the games, all the cut-ups (of film) in the offseason, and they just constantly look for ways to improve,”” Stoops said. “”I think they’re going to be extremely comfortable out there this year, and they’ll take their game to a whole other level.””

    This offseason, the media has been on the same page as the secondary coach, where preseason college football magazines have ranked the UA secondary as high as third in the nation, while early online mock drafts predict Cason – arguably the school’s best corner since the Baltimore Ravens’ Chris McAlister – to be taken as high as 15th overall in next year’s NFL Draft should he leave school early.

    When considering that senior safety Michael Johnson, who had three interceptions against Oregon State last October, could join Cason as a first-day draft pick, it seems like the pressure is on for the unit to succeed both individually and as a whole.

    “”I don’t really look at it as pressure,”” Johnson said. “”It’s a perception people have of us as a really good defensive back corps. All we can do is go out and play our game and do what we do good. That’s why we have the reputation.””

    Despite plenty of talent, the group must soldier on without the presence of Brooks, who led the team in tackles last season but more importantly was the communicative glue that kept everyone working in unison.

    Junior Dominic Patrick won the battle to replace him at free safety and sophomore Brandon Tatum as well as junior-college transfer Nate Ness will be his backups.

    “”We have to move on,”” Cason said. “”Although we’re going to miss him, we have some guys to fill in, and they’ll be able to do the job as well. We all just have to play that much harder just to better ourselves and play as a unit.””

    Brooks, who has returned to Arizona to pursue a master’s degree in public administration after being cut by the Dallas Cowboys this summer, said he has kept in touch with everybody in the secondary, whispering encouragement and playing tips in their ears from time to time.

    “”These guys, it’s nothing but talent out there,”” he said in a recent phone interview. “”They have a couple years with the weight staff, so they’re bigger, faster, stronger. I expect them to uphold that end of the bargain when it comes to the media exposure.””

    Fellow alumnus Brandon Sanders, a safety with the Wildcats from 1992 to 1995 and an occasional presence at fall-camp practices, also had words of praise for the group.

    He said this year’s unit compares favorably with that of the Desert Swarm era in the early- to mid-1990s, which featured future NFL players Tony Bouie, Keshon Johnson and Sanders.

    “”Look at these guys. Not only do they have the talent level, but they’ve been hungry for a long time,”” he said. “”As long as they keep that hunger, it’s going to be a real good shot.””

    Health will also be an issue in a way.

    Cason and Fontenot have been pictures of health their first two seasons – both have played every single defensive snap – and Stoops said he needs both players to stay on the field so youngsters like freshmen cornerbacks Devin Ross, who has taken Brooks’ No. 6, and Michael Turner can develop.

    “”For the first time since I’ve been here, we have some depth at cornerback,”” Stoops said. “”They’re young kids, but we’ve played young guys before at that position, so I really like what I’m seeing so far from the young guys – Devin Ross, (freshman safety) Cam Nelson, Michael Turner. We really feel good about the talent there.””

    Even so, Stoops, the former defensive backs coach at Miami, wouldn’t commit to calling this secondary the best he’s ever coached.

    “”I had a group with five first-round draft picks, so it’s yet to be determined,”” he said.

    “”They were good players coming into the year, they’ve gotten a lot of hype, and they’ve worked extremely hard to get better,”” he said later. “”I do think we have a chance to have a special group.””

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