They took divergent paths to end up at the same spot – starting cornerbacks for the Arizona Wildcats.
Christian Roland-Wallace stuck it out through the chaos of COVID-19 and a coaching change. Isaiah Rutherford sought a new opportunity and found a fit in Tucson.
Together, they have formed one of the UA’s most impressive pairings through seven spring practices. The cornerbacks are asked to do a lot in Don Brown’s high-wire defensive scheme. Roland-Wallace and Rutherford are playing the shutdown role that’s required for the defense to succeed.
“We play a lot of press coverage, a lot of man, so that puts a lot of stress on the guys,” UA cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker said. “I like where we are, but we still have a long way to go.”
Roland-Wallace has come a long way in a short time at Arizona. A coveted recruit from Palmdale, California whom USC also pursued, Roland-Wallace played regularly but inconsistently as a freshman in 2019. In the ’20 opener, he found himself in the middle of a play that could have made him a legend.
Arizona led USC 30-27 with less than a minute to play. The Trojans faced first-and-10 at the UA 27. Kedon Slovis lofted a pass toward Amon-Ra St. Brown. Roland-Wallace leaped and got his hands on the ball, only to have it carom off his fingertips to St. Brown for a 19-yard gain. USC scored on the next play and won 34-30.
Roland-Wallace hadn’t spoken to the media since that play. He hasn’t thought about it much, if at all.
“If you live in the past,” Roland-Wallace said, “you’ll die in the present.”
Roland-Wallace carried that mentality with him the rest of the season. He ended up as the fifth-rated cornerback in the Pac-12, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. He finished with 26 tackles and three pass breakups in five games.
All the while, several of his teammates in the secondary opted out during the season.
“It was a unique time,” he said. “But (I) stayed in, fought, finished out the year.”
After it ended, and Kevin Sumlin was fired, several more Wildcats entered the NCAA transfer portal. Roland-Wallace wasn’t among them.
“That’s the nature of the game,” he said. “Coaches come and go.”
Less than two weeks later, Arizona hired Jedd Fisch. Fisch hired Brown, whose pressure-oriented defense places a heavy burden on the cornerbacks. Roland-Wallace wouldn’t have it any other way.
“His energy, you can feel it when you hear his voice, when you see him,” Roland-Wallace said. “I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get to work with him.”
Brown’s scheme was one of the reasons Arizona appealed to Rutherford. A four-star recruit from Northern California, Rutherford spent the past two seasons at Notre Dame. But he couldn’t crack the rotation, appearing in only three games.
Rutherford sought a fresh start. Fisch and his staff pursued him aggressively. Arizona needed a plug-and-play replacement for Lorenzo Burns. Being closer to home didn’t hurt either.
“I just didn’t get the opportunity I feel like I deserved (at Notre Dame), so I just had to make the best decision for myself,” Rutherford said. “Getting in the portal was interesting, because you kind of already have an idea of what you want, what you’re looking for, so it’s recruiting all over again.
“Coach Fisch, Coach Brown and Coach Walker really talked about how they need press guys, and I feel like that’s one of my good characteristics.
“I’m aggressive. I’m a long corner (6-0, 192), so I try to get my hands on some guys. And I can play the ball really well.”
Barring injuries, Rutherford and Roland-Wallace are on track to open the season as Arizona’s starting corners. If they continue to make plays the way they have this spring, that position will become a team strength.
“I’m excited for this new year, this new opportunity,” Roland-Wallace said. “I can’t wait to get things rolling.”
Growing pains ‘normal’
The UA offense worked on the third phase of playbook installation Tuesday. The unit still appears to be finding its way as the Wildcats transition to a new scheme and style under Fisch.
“I think that’s normal,” said Fisch, sounding more pragmatic after expressing his frustration with the offense following the previous practice. “It would be crazy if I just walked out here every day and was like, ‘We nailed it.’ So we’ve got to keep going through this process. We’ve got to keep building. We’ve got to keep getting better, both sides of the ball.
“With offense, everything has to be perfect all the time, so they are thinking, they are learning. Each day they’re gonna improve upon that. That’s why we walk through, and that’s why it’s gonna be huge for them over the summer to really get that extra time in on their own as players to really keep studying.”
- Fisch attended the women’s basketball championship game between Arizona and Stanford in San Antonio on Sunday. “It was awesome and ... heart-wrenching at the same time,” he said. “They have done such an incredible job. To have the ball with (6.1) seconds left, a chance to win it, is all you could ever ask for.”
- Walker, a former defensive coordinator, on what he likes most about Brown’s defense: “He’s a bully. I love being in a system where you’re the bully, where you’re not just letting the offense dictate.”
- Rutherford on the weather upgrade from South Bend, Indiana, to Tucson: “Waking up in the morning, getting in sandals and wearing shorts is nice every day.”
- The defense continued to get the better of the offense during 11-on-11 play Thursday. The secondary had numerous pass breakups, including one by Roland-Wallace in the end zone. Jaxen Turner then intercepted a Gunner Cruz pass in the end zone.
- Cruz earlier connected with tight end Alex Lines for a short touchdown pass inside the right pylon. The other offensive touchdown during 11-on-11 came on a quick pass from Will Plummer to Tayvian Cunningham.
- Tailback Jalen John, a second-year freshman, worked extensively with the first-team offense. Another freshman tailback, Stevie Rocker Jr., produced the biggest play by the offense, taking a screen pass, turning upfield and racing down the left sideline.
- Tailback Michael Wiley, offensive lineman Donovan Laie and safety Gunner Maldonado remained out. Defensive tackle Dion Wilson Jr. also did not participate. Defensive backs Isaiah Mays and Rhedi Short remained limited.
- After defensive tackle Trevon Mason exited early, Paris Shand took his spot with the first-team defense. Fellow freshman Regen Terry worked at defensive tackle with the second unit after lining up at end earlier in camp.
- Fisch’s wife, Amber, and their daughters attended practice. They have officially moved to Tucson from New England. “Excited that they’re here,” Fisch said. “They’re here for good, so they’ll be at all the practices.”
- The Wildcats return to the field at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The session is open to the first 200 attendees.