Arizona’s Denson growing into role at cornerback

Arizona cornerback Cam Denson, bottom, makes his first career interception against Washington State last season.

Dean Hare/AP

TUCSON, Ariz. — The original plan was for Cam Denson to play receiver for Arizona.

The second plan was for Denson to play at cornerback for his freshman season with the Wildcats.

The third plan is for Denson to stay at corner.

As you can tell, plans change, but Denson — who was the main attraction in coach Rich Rodriguez’s 2014 signing class — is set to play a huge role on defense this season as a starter, even if going from touchdown-maker to touchdown-preventer still requires a bit of a mindset adjustment.

"You just have to embrace it," Denson said after practice Wednesday. "I played receiver in high school, that was my main position, but now I’m a corner. That’s what I do."

That Denson played defense last season spoke to Arizona’s depth and versatility on offense, as well as its crying need at corner. He played in 12 games, mostly as the team’s third cornerback, and made two interceptions as a wide-eyed, skinny freshman.

"I just wasn’t familiar with the defense, and I wasn’t physical enough," Denson said.

"I was just out there to be out there, kind of. I didn’t really know what was going on. I’m smarter with the game, seeing what is coming to me rather than just reacting to what is coming to me."

From the first day, Rodriguez said Denson needed to get bigger and stronger, and Denson has results to show his coach. Denson, saying he arrived at fall camp last year at 163, is up to around 180. His body fat has dropped from 12 percent to 10 percent.

"He’s starting to get a little definition in those arms now," cornerbacks coach David Lockwood said with a smile.

Denson still has room to add 5 to 10 pounds while getting stronger, but that hasn’t been the only way in which he has been growing.

"He’s trying to push himself a little more," Lockwood said. "I think that’s the biggest thing. He’s got to be a self-motivator and have a want-to. We’ve seen it in spurts now, which is good."

The cornerback position is one of Arizona’s potential trouble spots because of the lack of experience. Jarvis McCall started 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season, but he has been limited in spring because of injury. Denson, 5-foot-10, started twice last year when McCall was injured. The only other player on the roster who has played cornerback in a college game is junior Devin Holiday — and he hasn’t played much at all.

Denson, a three-time all-state player, was a do-it-all-threat at Tucson Salpointe Catholic, much like one of his new cornerback comrades — DaVonte’ Neal — was at Scottsdale Chaparral High. Neal switched from receiver to defense after last season. They went at each other — on offense and defense — in a 2011 game, when Chaparral won 22-21. Denson, then a sophomore, scored on an interception return in that game; Neal, a senior, scored on a reception and a kick return.

"They ended up winning by one on some lucky stuff," Denson said.

The Neal experiment on defense is ongoing. But having Denson stick at cornerback isn’t just a matter of roster configuration; it’s about upside.

Said Rodriguez after last season: "He can be a great corner, not just a good one."

"Hearing things like that makes me want to work harder and just focus on that position," Denson said.

Denson has what coaches are looking for at cornerback — the change of direction, the fluid hips, the body control. All that is evident on either side of the ball. His innate play-making skills are something that are a bit harder to teach.

"I want you to back-pedal, turn, break," Lockwood said. "But after that, it’s in your hands. I want you to go do what you do best — go make a play on the ball."

Denson did that against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, returning a pick 31 yards late in the first half to set up a 42-yard field goal by Casey Skowron.

A full-time playmaker on defense to complement All-American linebacker Scooby Wright is exactly what Arizona needs. So the thoughts of Denson some day resuming a career at receiver will just have to wait.

"They haven’t even talked to me about playing offense," Denson said of the coaches.

"I hear from people all the time, ‘Oh, I hear you might play some receiver.’ I’m like, ‘I ain’t heard it yet.’ If they let me play receiver — like a few plays on offense — while mainly playing DB, I’d like to do that. But as of right now, I’m just focusing on defense."

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