By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now
Arizona Wildcats sophomore cornerback Cam Denson smiles and laughs, but he's not quite ready to answer the question.
How much can you bench press these days?
That was a question born from a lighthearted comment by coach Rich Rodriguez after Monday night's practice regarding the physical improvements Denson has made from his true freshman season.
"When he first started benching, I think he just had the bar," Rodriguez said with a smile.
"Now, he's got a couple of plates on the side, so it's a little more impressive. I don't know if he's wearing sleeveless shirts yet, but he's gotten a lot bigger. He has great athletic ability and football is important to him, so he will keep getting better."
For Arizona, the sooner, the better.
Coaches heaved Denson into the deep end of the college football pool last season; he often played as the team's third cornerback and started twice. His natural instincts at corner were apparent after he was a do-everything star for Salpointe Catholic's 2013 Division II state championship team, but there were growing pains. Specifically, he needed to grow.
Denson is listed on the current roster at 5-foot-11, 168, but he said that doesn't tell the tale. He says he's added about 20 pounds after playing last season at no more than a wispy 165.
"I'm a lot bigger," he said.
"I was really little. Having those 20 pounds on me and still being able to move with that, it does a lot for me."
As for his bench press?
"I don't even want to say the numbers," he said, "but I got a lot stronger than I was last year."
The upshot is that Denson's new playing weight should mean he won't get "bounced around" - Rodriguez's words - by any number of big, physical, NFL-type receivers in the Pac-12. Denson has been working with the first team since the spring, stepping into the spot vacated by graduated Jonathan McKnight.
Redshirt sophomore Jarvis McCall is a returning starter at the other cornerback spot, but he is coming back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the bulk of spring drills, and health issues dogged him early in fall camp.
Elsewhere, Rodriguez has had encouraging words about the progress of junior DeVonte' Neal, who converted from receiver in the spring (and Rodriguez isn't one to carelessly lavish praise). Junior Devin Holiday has played some, although injuries curtailed his development last season.
The Wildcats added junior college transfer Dane Cruikshank and have various young guys trying to catch the coaches' eyes in the next week or so. One of those is true freshman Sammy Morrison, whose father Darryl Morrison played in the NFL and was a starting corner on Arizona's Desert Swarm defenses of more than two decades ago.
So, there are various possibilities at cornerback, but Denson figures to be one with the most upside, now that he's bigger and using his head as well as his athletic ability.
"I'm out here recognizing the formation and what I'm going to get pre-snap, so I'm having a little advantage of knowing what to play," he said.
"Having that year under my belt helped me a lot. You always look back and say, 'Why did I do that here? Why didn't I do this?' I'm wiser out there on the field. Last year, I was kind of thrown out there and didn't really know much."
Denson had 21 tackles, intercepted two passes and broke up two others last season. He said one of his favorite moments didn't even count. He scooped up a loose ball late in the 26-23 win at UTSA and ran it into the end zone, although the play was ruled an incomplete pass and called dead. Still, it was a familiar feeling for Denson, who scored often at Salpointe as a receiver and a returner.
When he signed with Arizona in 2014, the coaches' initial instincts were to put him on offense, but they ended up having a much greater need for Denson on defense when fall camp began. Rodriguez has said that Denson has a chance to be "great" at cornerback, and the sophomore is embracing his potential on that side of the ball.
"I'm a defensive player now," he said. "The offensive dreams, they're kind of slowly and surely sliding away. Right now, I'm just playing defense, trying to get better every day."
Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.