Bill Kirelawich kneeled on the Kindall/Sancet Stadium field inches from the ball during a recent practice.
With a white towel draped around his neck and a hat to protect his face from the 97-degree temperature, Kirelawich was doing what he’s always doing in early August — trying to get the most out of defensive linemen.
The UA’s 66-year-old defensive line coach is in his 45th year of coaching, and has been doing the fall camp routine for more than two-thirds of his life.
“He was a little more active 30 years ago,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He still coaches the same way. He’s a rarity. He comes off as a hard-ass tough guy, which he is, but his players, once they get to know him, love him. They call him ‘Kirelav,’ not ‘Coach Kirelav.’”
“They can see he’s not just interested in them as a player. He’s making sure they are doing the right stuff.”
Kirelawich’s job may be a tad more difficult this year.
Arizona returns just two linemen — Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato — who saw extended playing time last season. In a system where Kirelawich would ideally like to play seven or eight players in a game, this year’s situation isn’t ideal.
Gilbert and Pettinato are ends, as is LSU transfer Jordan Allen. That leaves a big hole in the middle at nose tackle. At the start of camp, it looked like the Wildcats had plenty of options there with Boise State/junior college transfer Jeff Worthy, Dwight Melvin, Aiulua Fanene, Sani Fuimaono and Parker Zellers.
Just five days into camp, that list has shrunk.
Melvin suffered a concussion during the first practice of the fall and Fuimaono is out indefinitely with a broken foot. Fanene is still working his way back into football shape after missing the past two seasons on a Mormon mission, and Zellers, a redshirt freshman walk-on, weighs 240 pounds on a good day.
But the veteran Kirelawich isn’t freaking out.
“The only time you’re stressed is when you feel like they don’t know what’s going on,” Kirelawich said. “There’s a flow to it this year, a tempo. Just no one has a magic wand to make our freshmen seniors. It’s moving the right way, just slowly.”
Kirelawich recently chatted with the Star about the group and his expectations for the season.
On the nose tackle spot: “Right now I don’t want to say disarray, but it’s up in the air. I think Worthy is getting better every day. But until I see (Melvin) in pads and (Fuimaono) getting in there and going, it’s going to be up in the air. It’s extremely hard right now, regardless of what’s on the horizon. We have to get (freshman) Marcus Griffin ready to play, and that’s difficult. We have Zellers backing up Worthy right now. He’s undersized, but plays well. He’s still smaller than I’d like.”
On Worthy: “Right now Worthy (6-2, 287) is in a good place size-wise. I don’t worry about him. You just want to go into the season with three or four solid nose guards, not one. Now with Melvin and (Fuimaono) losing rep time, it backs up the process and slows things down.”
On Fanene: “He’s still rusty, big-time rusty. Imagine the spot he’s in. You come back from two years away and you’re playing a totally different position than when you left in a different system. It’s a hell of an adjustment. All things considered, he’s doing well and coming along. I think he’ll get better as we get going. He’s trying hard. Typically when you try hard, you’ll get better as time goes on. It’s the same thing with (end) Jordan Allen. He’s coming, but it’s a process. It’s not the same thing he did at LSU. The coaching is different. The atmosphere is different. He’s getting used to the pace of play here.”
On the 6-foot-6-inch, 259-pound Calvin Allen, who redshirted last season as a freshman: “Calvin Allen is really improved. He’s not to the point where he’s a regular. But he’s improved enough where he can see some playing time. If not in the beginning, then when we get rolling. He has the body. We just need to continue to develop him.”
On the defensive ends: “We’re in a little better shape there than nose (tackle) because I have (Gilbert) and (Pettinato). But after that it’s a little muddled, and you don’t want to just play those two guys.”