Analyzing Arizona Football's safety room ahead of the 2024 season

The circle of safeties on Arizona's roster got even smaller, but it was a trimming of the fat. This is a streamlined, ready-to-go group of secondary defenders.
Valero Alamo Bowl - Arizona v Oklahoma
Valero Alamo Bowl - Arizona v Oklahoma / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

Free safety Gunner Maldonado and strong safety Dalton Johnson emerged as an explosive tandem over the course of the season. However, it wasn't supposed to be that way and came as a huge surprise.

Maldonado had struggled at times over his first two years with the Wildcats before settling in as a mainstay, while Johnson was cracking the lineup for the first time after years of only seeing time on special teams. However, the Alamo Bowl was a microcosm of how the two veterans became centerpieces of the defense.

It didn't leave much room for the other safeties to see playing time, and with both of them running it back for one more year, most of the depth is gone. However, the safety tandem of the future is waiting in the wings and will be ready to go in the unthinkable event that one of them goes down with an injury.

2023 Roster:

  • Gunner Maldonado - Returned to Arizona
  • Dalton Johnson - Returned to Arizona
  • Genesis Smith - Returned to Arizona
  • Isaiah Taylor - Transferred to Miami
  • D.J. Warnell Jr. - Transferred to Indiana
  • Cruz Rushing - Transferred to Oregon

2024 Projected roster:

  • Gunner Maldonado - Returned to Arizona
  • Dalton Johnson - Returned to Arizona
  • Genesis Smith - Returned to Arizona
  • Jack Luttrell - Transferred in from Tennessee

There wasn't much effort to rejuvenate the group of safeties by the Brent Brennan-led staff, but that's because it's not an area that needs to be addressed yet. With only four players on the roster who are proven safeties, it will be a shallow yet extremely potent rotation.

Gunner Maldonado (Senior) | 6'0" 195 lbs.

Maldonado drew the ire of some Arizona fans for a few seasons, despite sticking around after the horrendous 2021 season. He transferred to Arizona in 2020 following his freshman season at Northwestern, and finally became the player Jedd Fisch saw when luring him away from Evanston in the first place in the 2023 season.

He logged a career-high 79 tackles, which was the third-most on the team, and a team-leading two interceptions. He was a freight train in the final two games of the season, logging 10 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception against ASU before notching another nine tackles, an interception, and two fumble recoveries — one of which was an 87-yard return on a fumble forced by Johnson.

Maldonado was named the game's defensive Co-MVP for his gutsy performance that kicked Arizona into gear and propelled the Wildcats to the win. He'll look to maintain that production level throughout an entire season as one of four integral components to Arizona's secondary alongside Johnson and cornerbacks Tacario Davis and Treydan Stukes.

Dalton Johnson (RS Junior) | 5'11" 200 lbs.

Johnson spent his first two years at Arizona as a reserve, only seeing sparing time on special teams in the 2022 season. However, he emerged as a hard-hitting playmaker in 2023, his first season in the starting lineup. He'll look to maintain the success he saw last season and keep his nose for the football sharp.

Johnson also had a career year, finishing second on the team with 86 tackles and leading the team with four forced fumbles — tied with nine other players for second-most in the country. He also notched two sacks, a pass defended, and an interception in his breakout year. Like Maldonado, he exploded in the Alamo Bowl for 13 total tackles and the crucial forced fumble that shifted the game's momentum.

Johnson was the other Alamo Bowl Defensive Co-MVP alongside his backfield-mate Maldonado, capping off a season that secured his starting spot going forward. The kid from Katy, Texas, patiently waited his turn but didn't look back once he was given his opportunity, and another good year could put him on some NFL draft boards.

Genesis Smith (Sophomore) | 6'2" 200 lbs.

Smith was one of Arizona's highest-graded freshman signees in last year's recruiting cycle, and quickly found a path to the field via special teams and certain defensive packages. Standing at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he's lining up to take over for Johnson in the 2025 season and beyond.

He played in all 13 games last season and managed to record at least one tackle in all but two. He snagged his first career interception in the Alamo Bowl and logged a season-high five tackles against Washington. Combine that with last year's backup D.J. Warnell heading to Indiana, and Smith will be a much more important part of the rotation in 2024.

Jack Luttrell (RS Freshman) | 6'0" 180 lbs.

Luttrell has all the makings of a pickup that may not seem impactful right away on the surface, but plucking talent away from the SEC and getting them in an Arizona uniform isn't a bad strategy. He transferred in from Tennessee ahead of Jedd Fisch heading to Washington, but he held to his commitment to the Wildcats.

Luttrell was an all-around athlete in high school who started as a quarterback before converting to an offensive weapon and defensive multitool. He projects as an extremely versatile defender who could take over for Maldonado as an athletic and rangy centerfielder after 2024 with last year's backup Isaiah Taylor departing for Miami to reunite with his father.

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