Arizona vs. Oregon State

Even in Arizona's worst games, such as its 42-17 loss at Oregon State, defensive lineman Larry Tharpe Jr. made plays.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Continuing our countdown of the 17 most valuable Arizona Wildcats of 2017.

Before we go any further, some reminders:

“Most valuable” does not necessarily mean “best.” Rather, we’re defining it as the contributions and traits that most influence winning football. They include talent, leadership and projected role and production.

Newcomers were not eligible for the list. Although many might become major contributors this year, especially on defense, their roles are just too difficult to predict in June.

NO. 11: DL LARRY THARPE JR.

Ht/Wt/Yr: 6-5, 275, redshirt junior

Comment: Of the defensive lineman who’ve played actual games for Arizona, Tharpe has the highest upside. He flashed it repeatedly over the second half of last season, when he forced his way into a prominent role.

Tharpe should continue to improve this season, when he’ll have several things going for him that he didn’t have a year ago. Tharpe joined the team when fall 2016 classes started, so he didn’t have the benefit of training camp. This year he’ll have a full offseason on campus – weight-room and conditioning workouts, spring practice and training camp – before suiting up for the Sept. 2 opener against Northern Arizona.

Despite arriving late as a walk-on from Tyler (Texas) Junior College, Tharpe compiled some respectable numbers. In eight games, he accumulated 16 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, and three pass breakups. The latter were the most for any non-defensive back on the UA roster.

Tharpe was one of the few bright spots in lopsided losses to Washington State (two tackles, one TFL) and Oregon State (four tackles, one TFL). He was even better in the Territorial Cup, totaling a career-high five tackles and one pass breakup in Arizona’s 56-35 victory over Arizona State.

Beyond the numbers, Tharpe showed the ability to make plays – despite not necessarily knowing what he was doing. His knowledge of the playbook and his technique should be significantly sharper after spending a year in the system absorbing the teachings of DL coach Vince Amey.

Tharpe possesses physical traits that most of Arizona’s other defensive linemen simply lack – namely, size and length. Tharpe is listed at 6-5, 275, and he has enough quickness and agility to maneuver past offensive linemen to get into the backfield and make plays.

It’s no secret that the defensive front remains the Wildcats’ biggest area of concern. The unit simply did not make enough plays last season, and efforts to upgrade the talent there largely failed this offseason.

JC transfer Sione Taufahema, a nose tackle, is likely to be a rotation player. Incoming freshman My-King Johnson, a defensive end, could become one as well. But transfers Gaelin Elmore and Dereck Boles elected to play elsewhere. Both almost certainly would have been immediate contributors.

Unlike linebacker, where almost everyone will be new, the interior of the defensive line mostly will consist of holdovers. For the unit to improve, the returning players must improve.

None is in a better position to take a major step forward than Tharpe. He doesn’t need to be an all-conference performer. But if he can be a consistent threat, he can make a significant impact on a defense in desperate need of difference-makers. There’s considerable value in that.

THE 17 MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2017