TUCSON, Ariz. — Cam Denson, Tucson born and raised, says his favorite Arizona Wildcats football player as a kid was Antoine Cason.
Cason, the winner of the 2007 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, is one of the finest cornerbacks in UA history and started his first game as a true freshman.
Denson would like to take the same initial step.
The Salpointe Catholic graduate has six more practices this week to show the coaches what he can do at cornerback before the Wildcats, presumably, settle in to a starting lineup as game prep begins for the Aug. 29 opener against UNLV.
"If I’m fortunate enough to start in the first game, I have to be ready," Denson said. "If they call my name, I have to be held accountable for the team. I can’t let the team down and I have to prove a point — that I can play at the Division I level as a corner."
Denson was the centerpiece to Arizona’s 2014 class — a four-star recruit who was ranked No. 71 nationally by Scout.com. He led Salpointe to an undefeated season and a Division II state title, excelling on both sides of the ball, but his college future mostly was pegged at wide receiver.
But with overflowing depth at receiver, a lack of it at cornerback, and the need to get the athletic Denson somewhere on the field, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez asked him to spend his freshman season in a backpedal.
"I told RichRod, if it’s best for the team, I’ll play corner," Denson said.
"I wasn’t fighting it or anything. Even before I came here, I thought about telling the coaches I want to play corner. At the time, it was faster for me to get on the field. It was a good move to my thinking."
Denson, speaking Sunday at Arizona’s Media Day, said he’s working with the second-team unit in practice. Senior Jonathan McKnight is entrenched at one cornerback spot. Denson, sophomore Devin Holiday and redshirt freshman Jarvis McCall are vying for the other starting spot.
"He has to get stronger," Rodriguez said of Denson, who is 5-foot-11 and 168 pounds.
"I think he’s seen that these college receivers are a little bit bigger and stronger. But he’s a competitive guy and he runs well. I think he took a big step in the last few days just getting more confident each and every day.
"He’ll be one of those freshmen who play early. I don’t know if he’s a starter — he’s still learning — but he’s going to have a great career here."
Denson was the first player to commit to Arizona 2014 class, doing so in January 2013. The class ended up ranked 30th nationally, hurt late by the de-commitments of four-star cornerback Naijiel Hale (Washington) and five-star corner Jalen Tabor (Florida). Cornerback depth took another punch when Derek Babiash, who would have been a sophomore, left the team after spring practice.
So even if Denson doesn’t crack the starting lineup, the opportunity is there for time in Arizona’s nickel and dime packages.
"Because of all the spread teams, you have to have more corners ready to play. You have to have three or four," Rodriguez said.
"That’s why if people follow our recruiting at all, we’re getting a lot more DBs, a lot more corners coming in. Our numbers have been really, really low. They are a little bit better this year, but the next two years, we’re going to get to the point where we’re playing five or six corners at some point in every game."
By then, Denson might be a wide receiver. His high school highlights show his potential in the return game, too.
As junior safety Will Parks said, "Cam, he’s got some stuff to him."
He’ll soon show it to his hometown crowd. The kid who grew up cheering for the cardinal and navy picked Arizona early, but not mindlessly. What helped cement his choice was being in the stands for big wins over USC in 2012 and Oregon in 2013.
And he intently watched hometown hero Ka’Deem Carey become a two-time All-American running back.
"Just seeing Ka’Deem having a lot of success here, that played a role," Denson said. "I don’t have to leave Tucson to be successful."