By the end of last season, Larry Tharpe Jr. had become the Arizona Wildcats’ most effective defensive lineman — a remarkably swift rise for a player who had no Division I experience and arrived on campus in late August.

Tharpe’s success is even more improbable when you consider that he didn’t always know what he was doing.

Tharpe primarily relied on instinct after ascending from the scout team to the defensive line rotation about a month into the season. In eight games, he compiled 16 tackles — tied for second most among UA linemen — including 2.5 for losses. He also broke up three passes, more than any other non-defensive back.

“Given the circumstances, I think I did pretty well,” Tharpe said. “But I definitely could have done a lot better.”

Tharpe is in the process of taking those next steps. The redshirt junior is focusing on his improving his technique this spring.

Defensive line coach Vince Amey wants Tharpe to learn to play within the scheme after he spent much of last season, in his words, “freestyling.” The coaching points include keying in on the blocker lined up across from him, maintaining gap integrity and generally executing his responsibilities.

“He understands the game of football,” Amey said of Tharpe, whose father played in the NFL from 1992-2000. “I have to teach him now how to take on blocks. He likes to swim (make swim moves) and do all this other stuff. He’s very productive doing that. But if he does things in the scheme of our defense, he’ll be really, really good.”

The other tenet of Tharpe’s offseason improvement plan is to build up his body. Because he arrived late after transferring from Tyler (Texas) Junior College, Tharpe didn’t have a chance to participate in Arizona’s weight program last summer. He has natural size at 6-foot-5 — size the Wildcats desperately need — but needs to add more bulk.

While he has gotten stronger since he arrived at the UA, Tharpe said he has lost weight, from his listed 275 pounds to about 270. He’d like to play at around 285.

“What’s going to set him apart is getting in that weight room,” Amey said, “just getting him bigger, faster and stronger.”

Tharpe is more comfortable in his surroundings. He often felt like the new guy last year. He was quiet. Now he talks trash with quarterbacks Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate and has developed close relationships with fellow defensive linemen Justin Belknap and Marcus Griffin.

“I came in as a walk-on. I wasn’t really sure what was happening,” Tharpe said. “I’m more vocal now. I definitely feel like one of the guys.”

Amey has high expectations for Tharpe and told him as much in a recent conversation. Tharpe might have as high an upside as any current UA defensive linemen, despite being a walk-on — a situation that probably won’t change until 2018.

If Arizona gave Tharpe a scholarship now, he would count against its annual allowance of 25 initial counters. That rule no longer would apply after two years on the team.

Earning a scholarship remains a source of motivation for Tharpe. But even if he gets one, it won’t change his approach.

“I don’t want to get complacent,” Tharpe said. “If I get it, I’m still going to work like I need one.”

Extra points

  • UA coach Rich Rodriguez said “some guys were still about half on spring break mentally” in the team’s first practice Monday since having a week off. Overall team conditioning is not where Rodriguez wants it, but he’s confident that won’t be an issue come August.
  • Rodriguez said running back is the position he feels best about in terms of depth (assuming reasonably good health) and experience.
  • Regarding injury-prone senior tailback Nick Wilson, Rodriguez said: “When he’s been healthy, he’s played well. But he hasn’t been healthy that much. It’s been uneven simply because of the injuries. I think Nick is determined to have a great year to get back to having the kind of production he had as a freshman.”
  • Offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said he feels better about the depth of his group than at any time since he’s been at Arizona.
  • Rodriguez said right tackle Gerhard de Beer hasn’t been able to practice this spring. De Beer missed time at the end of last season (knee).
  • The following offensive linemen, all redshirt freshmen, are practicing after missing time earlier in camp: Michael Eletise (car accident), Harper Sherman (ankle) and Keenan Walker (ankle).
  • As was the case before spring break, receiver Cam Denson had a walking boot on his right foot. The injury is not believed to be serious.
  • Defensive end Jalen
  • Cochran
  • again had a yellow jersey on as he left practice, indicating he still isn’t back from an undisclosed injury.
  • Nose tackle Parker Zellers, who has been limited, exited practice wearing pads and carrying a helmet, a possible sign that he’s back to full strength.
  • Does Arizona’s basketball success help football? “When our name is out there, I think it helps everybody,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a positive.”