The injury bug wasn’t kind to the Arizona defense this spring, as notable names missed most or all of the spring practices. But the injuries also let younger players see some extra reps, giving the Wildcats a chance to cultivate some of the depth they lacked all last season.
Arizona entered spring practice with 12 players already missing time, all of them healing from injuries sustained the year prior. Many of them were expected starters, too, such as Marquis Flowers, Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson, players who could have used the 15 spring practices to improve a defense that ranked third-worst in the nation for total yards allowed in 2012.
Instead, Arizona got the opportunity to play new faces and work on building the depth it desperately needs.
“You coach the guys no different than if you had all the guys out there,” cornerbacks coach David Lockwood said.
The cornerback position was hit hardest this offseason as the position’s two top players, Richardson and McKnight, were both sidelined the entire spring with shoulder injuries.
“Unfortunately, in a season or in a game, someone is going to get hurt so someone else has to step up,” Lockwood said. “In my entire career I’ve always tried to coach every player as if they are a starter, because with one play they could become a starter.”
Throughout last season, several players who weren’t fully ready for college football had to play, head coach Rich Rodriguez said. Rodriguez may not have wanted to play them, but he had to because Arizona needed 11 men on the field.
Freshman William Parks was one defender forced into the action, playing in six games in 2012, including the Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Nevada, where he had two solo tackles. Parks credits his preparation for the small, but early, success he had last season.
“You just got to be ready and use practice, especially these 15 practices, to be ready for whatever the coaches might ask you to do,” Parks said.
“Be ready” is right. The 6-foot-1 safety has played numerous positions this spring due to the injuries the defense suffered.
“Parks is moving around a few places, but he’s proven himself,” safety Jared Tevis said. “Parks is a real intense guy and he’s also physical, so when he’s on the field he’s looking to hit someone, and that’s a good trait.”
Tevis himself missed a couple of spring practices this year because of a sprained ankle. Tevis said, though, that being injured doesn’t mean you’re not involved. He said the nonparticipating players still performed mental reps and could complete individual workouts and lifting during the spring.
Many of the younger Wildcats, such as Parks, took advantage of the extra playing time in practice to better their position on the depth chart and help the team improve on its 8-5 finish last season.
“I got to stay humble, but also confident that I‘m doing what’s right and I’m good at it,” Parks said. “Because if you’re not confident, you’re not going to make plays, and with this defense you got to make plays if you want to play.”
Lockwood said technique is the biggest difference between the regular starters and replacement guys like Parks. Fortunately for Parks and the rest of the players filling in, they’ve had 15 practices to try to catch up to the players ahead of them on the depth chart.
With all but one defensive starter returning and added depth from backups like Parks and a new recruiting class, Arizona has a chance to improve significantly on that side of the ball.
“We did all right last season,” Tevis said, “but we want more. So we’re excited to have our experience coming back, and it was good to see the younger guys get out there and try and prove themselves.”