Arizona Wildcats freshman Kylan Wilborn has had an excellent first season, far exceeding expectations.
But he readily acknowledges that he’s far from a finished product. He learned a lot this year, and there’s plenty more to glean.
The same goes for the rest of Arizona’s freshman-filled defense. The way Wilborn sees it, the Wildcats are just getting started on that side of the ball.
“I like the way we play,” Wilborn said Friday as Arizona continued to prepare for the Dec. 27 Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue. “We’re all young. There’s just room for growth.
“There’s a lot more goals we can reach. I’m excited to be on that path and be with this team and see where we can go.”
UA coach Rich Rodriguez repeated a recent mantra Friday, saying that the defense’s “numbers aren’t good.” The unit — which starts four true freshmen and one redshirt freshman — did tail off at the end of the season. But it has improved in critical areas such as points allowed, three-and-outs and takeaways.
Wilborn has played a vital role in the latter. Coming off the edge from the hybrid “Stud” position, Wilborn leads the Pac-12 with four forced fumbles. He also has a team-high 7.5 sacks.
“He’s been amazing,” defensive tackle Finton Connolly said. “He’s just got a motor. He’s just nonstop.”
A three-star recruit from northern Los Angeles, Wilborn wasn’t expected to do what he did, at least not right away. But when senior DeAndre’ Miller hurt his foot in the summer, Wilborn stepped into that void. He started from Week 1.
“He’s been as impactful as all the rest of the guys,” Rodriguez said. “We needed him early with DeAndre’ being hurt. He was thrust into the role from the start. He gave us some really good football.”
Wilborn peaked against UCLA on Oct. 14, sacking Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen four times. At the halfway point of the regular season, Wilborn had 19 tackles, seven stops for losses, five sacks and three forced fumbles.
But Wilborn sprained an ankle the following week at Cal, and it has been bothering him off and on since.
“It can get aggravated pretty quickly, but it’s something you’ve just got to suck up and play through,” Wilborn said. “It’s football. It’s what you signed up for.”
Wilborn also started getting more attention from opposing offenses, who would use running backs to chip-block him. In the final six games, he had 13 tackles, 2.5 stops for losses (both sacks) and one forced fumble.
But Wilborn didn’t come to Arizona with any lofty personal goals. He just wanted to “help my team to the best of my abilities.” He did that by switching positions for the regular-season finale.
With Justin Belknap (knee) out against Arizona State, Wilborn shifted from Stud to defensive end. The positions are similar, but not the same. The Stud is basically a stand-up end who sometimes drops into coverage. The true end plays in a three-point stance closer to the interior of the line.
“It was a little bit tough for him,” said Brian Knorr, who coaches Arizona’s edge rushers. “I think he was a little bit tentative. There are some subtleties, some differences.”
“It was different,” Wilborn said. “I had to learn the opposite. You’ve got a week to hurry up and try to learn the other side real quick. I just saw it as a challenge.”
Wilborn, who’s listed at 6-2, 245 pounds, is back at his usual position for the Foster Farms Bowl. Asked about his objectives, he said he isn’t thinking about anything beyond Purdue. He knows he needs to get bigger and stronger in the offseason and that the only way to do that is by “putting in time on my own. It’s about how bad I want it.”
Wilborn also knows that he’s in the same place as fellow freshman starters Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II and Scottie Young. Whatever they achieved this year is just the beginning.
“It was a big learning experience,” Wilborn said. “I’m just excited. I’m seeing this more as a steppingstone to what I can do in the future.”
Athlon acknowledges Alsadek
Athlon Sports released its Pac-12 awards and all-conference teams Friday. The longtime chronicler of college football named Arizona senior guard Jacob Alsadek to the first team and junior return specialist Shun Brown to the second team. Both were relegated to honorable-mention status on the official All-Pac-12 teams, as voted upon by the league’s coaches.
In sync with the league, Athlon named tailback J.J. Taylor and Schooler its top freshmen on offense and defense. It named UA quarterback Khalil Tate its top “Breakout Player.”
- Tate was somewhat limited in practice because of flu-like symptoms, Rodriguez said. Others under the weather included receiver Gary Brightwell and safety Tristan Cooper.
- B.J. Denker and Rodriguez have shared the QB coaching duties while Rod Smith is away on a family matter. Smith should be back by Sunday.
- Arizona’s talent level has risen on defense. But, Rodriguez said, “We still need some help in this recruiting class, some immediate help.” Up front is where it’s needed most. Help also should come from players who redshirted this year, including defensive end My-King Johnson and defensive tackle Sione Taufahema.
- Arizona has one official visitor this weekend — defensive tackle P.J. Johnson from City College of San Francisco. The UA is considered the favorite for Johnson, who would join the team in January.
- Arizona will be in the market for a new punter (or two) to add to the roster for next season, likely a walk-on. Rodriguez said he feels good about the kicker combo of Lucas Havrisik and Josh Pollack. Punting, meanwhile, has been the weak link of the special teams.