Dan Pettinato was 50 pounds lighter and several steps slower when he first arrived on the UA's campus 15 months ago.
The Arizona Wildcats' defensive end immediately - and, perhaps, predictably - fell behind.
"It was kind of a shock when I first got here," he said. "The speed of the game was fast and everything was new, and practice was different too. I had to get used to practice speed and then transition to game speed."
Steadily, Pettinato has caught up. The redshirt freshman will make his third consecutive start when the UA takes on Arizona State on Saturday in the annual battle for the Territorial Cup.
Pettinato has registered 12 tackles since working his way into the defensive rotation a month ago. He's part of a revamped defensive line. Just one of this week's four projected starters, defensive tackle Sione Tuihalamaka, was in the Wildcats' short-term plans at the start of the season.
Defensive ends coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said the 6-foot-4-inch, 265-pound Pettinato "just does stuff right."
"Our big thing as a team is trying not to make mistakes. We have too many minuses," he said. "Dan has really done a good job of being consistent, and that's what we're looking for."
Here are three things that make Pettinato, 19, more than just a fill-in during a lost season:
1. He has the skills. Pettinato grew up in Grass Valley, Calif., and starred in football and basketball at Nevada Union High School before graduating in 2010. When Arizona offered him a scholarship following his senior season - and just before signing day - the lanky athlete jumped at it. After all …
2. Tucson is practically home. Pettinato spent plenty of time in Tucson as a boy. Pettinato's great-grandfather on his mother's side, Joe Bonanno, was a Mafia boss who relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Tucson. He died in 2002. (Note: UA place-kicker John Bonano spells his last name differently, and is not related.)
Pettinato said he knew a little about his family's connections as a boy, but "it wasn't really something our parents talked about."
Instead, Pettinato spent family time with his grandparents, Bill and Rosalie Bonanno, in their Blenman-Elm home. Bill Bonanno died in 2008, but Rosalie remains a major part of Pettinato's life. In fact, Pettinato said his grandmother has made the adjustment to college "way easier."
"It feel like I've got parents here," he said. "It's like I've got my mom here."
3. Pettinato has a posse … Dan is the fourth of 11 children ranging between the ages of 26 and 4. He has eight sisters and two brothers; a younger brother, Dominic, is a junior tight end/defensive end at Nevada Union. Five of the Pettinato siblings visited Dan following Wednesday's practice on campus; the family's expected to travel to Tempe for this weekend's rivalry game.
4. … and a passion to get better. Pettinato figures to improve with each extra game of experience. Already, he's proven to be a steadying force on a defensive line that ranks 118th out of 120 teams nationally in sacks. Pettinato plays well in flashes, but must be more consistent; he's grading out at about 80 percent, a B grade, on film.
"I've just got to improve on everything. There's no limit for me," Pettinato said. "I feel like I've improved on a lot since I got here, but there's always room for more."
Arizona's final two games of the 2011 season will provide a fitting test - and an audition that could serve Pettinato well once UA athletic director Greg Byrne hires a new coach. Pettinato has already impressed the Wildcats' current staff.
"He's done a really good job. He's going to be a really good player in the future," Hammerschmidt said. "Right now, he's coming on."
• What: Arizona at ASU
• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• TV: FSAZ
• Radio 1290-AM, 107.5-FM