Editor’s note: This is the latest in a weeklong positional preview series. We’ll look at Arizona’s personnel at each spot and break it down. Today, we look at the UA’s defensive line and linebackers. Up next: cornerbacks and safeties on
Rich Rodriguez’s philosophy for rebuilding a program is simple.
In Year 1, you lose big. Year 2, you lose small, and that’s followed by winning small and finally, winning big.
Well, the same sort of thinking can be applied to Rodriguez’s defense at the UA.
In year one, the group was bad — allowing 459 points and 6,487 yards on the season and totaling just 16 sacks.
Last year, the defense was average. The group gave up just 315 points and 5,214 yards and had 24 sacks — a drastic improvement that still only put the Wildcats in the middle of the Pac-12.
This year, Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel want the defense to go from average to good. And Rodriguez thinks they have the personnel to do it.
“The first year we were celebrating every time we gave up a field goal,” Rodriguez said. “I mean, we were giving up high-fives to stop anything. Last year, we had a few stops. But our staff has done a really good job putting this whole thing together for two years.
“Now we’ll have a little bit more depth and talent defensively than we’ve had.”
To take that next step, Rodriguez and Casteel need the defense’s front six to be pests in the opposing backfield.
Here’s a closer look at the UA’s defensive line and linebackers.
Ends: Starters: Jordan Allen and Reggie Gilbert or Dan Pettinato; backups: Luca Bruno and Calvin Allen
Nose tackle: Starter: Dwight Melvin or Aiulua Fanene or Sani Fuimaono; \backup: Jeff Worthy
Breakdown: Arizona has a lot to figure out on its defensive line over the next four weeks. Rodriguez wouldn’t commit to anyone last week when asked about Tevin Hood’s replacement at nose tackle.
It’s likely because it’s wide open.
Melvin, entering his redshirt sophomore season, should get a good crack at serious playing time. If he has a strong camp and has put on muscle — like Rodriguez was hoping — he could be the primary man in the middle.
If he isn’t quite as good as the coaches are hoping, Fanene and Fuimaono will get extended looks. The two tackles are back after a two-year mission and Arizona coaches would be satisfied with 20-25 productive snaps by each early in the season. Boise State and junior college transfer Worthy didn’t stand out in the spring, but could still certainly factor into the situation.
The two end spots became a lot more settled when Arizona landed Jordan Allen, an LSU transfer, in late April. Allen, Pettinato and Gilbert could all get equal playing time at the two end spots with Allen maybe getting more time against the pass and Gilbert more against the run.
Bruno and Calvin Allen, a pair of redshirts last year, will try to earn some reps with a strong fall.
Whatever the combination ends up being on the line, Rodriguez is hoping the group will be able to get more pressure on the quarterback. Last year’s line had 11½ sacks and did it without a natural pass rusher.
Quotable: “Sometimes you can bring pass rush pressure, but you’d rather have it where you can rush three or four and still get there. I think we’re better there. We have a couple guys that can bring some pressure, but we still don’t have that one scary, pass-rusher guy yet. We’re still looking for that. But we have more there than we used to.” — Rodriguez
Projected two deep:
Middle linebacker: Starter: Scooby Wright; backup: Hank Hobson
Outside linebackers: Starters: DeAndre’ Miller and Derrick Turituri; backups: Jamardre Cobb and Jake Matthews
Breakdown: Two days before camp, Wright seems like the only lock to be a starter at linebacker. Wright played on the outside last season as a true freshman and flourished. He had 83 tackles, including 9½ for a loss, and an interception.
He spent most of the spring inside at the middle linebacker spot that Jake Fischer vacated. Casteel said then he wanted Wright to be familiar with all three positions, but he figures to open in the middle.
The two outside spots are up for grabs.
Miller, Turituri and Matthews were all strong in the spring and improved their stock. Matthews, the former Ironwood Ridge High School star, is still a walk-on, but Rodriguez said last week “he’s right on track” to earn a scholarship and playing time.
Turituri and Miller were both forced to play as true freshmen last season when a redshirt campaign might have been more beneficial. Both have added strength and should be more prepared for Pac-12 play this season.
Cobb and fellow incoming freshman Marquis Ware will compete for playing time, and should be able to earn some. There’s a decent chance both are on the two-deep and receiving plenty of reps by the team’s opener against UNLV.
Quotable: “I’m excited about some of those linebackers that redshirted last year. Obviously Scooby Wright had a big season. He was overlooked coming out of high school, but now just about every program would go after him. DeAndre’ Miller, Jake Matthews, Derrick Turituri, they all made strides last season, and I think can be really good players for us. We’ll see how it goes.” — Rodriguez