DT Finton Connolly (in white) will play a key role in the middle of Arizona's defense, where experience is sorely lacking. 

The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the latest installment.

No. 9: DT Finton Connolly

Height/weight/year: 6-5, 305, redshirt senior

Key 2018 stats: 13 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 PBU

Comment: Connolly never has been more important to the Wildcats than he is today.

He is the only defensive tackle on the roster who has any substantial Division I experience as a defensive tackle.

Arizona enters 2019 having to replace both of its starting interior linemen, PJ Johnson and Dereck Boles. Connolly contributed as a member of the rotation last season, starting four times. He now will be tasked with leading the group.

The Gilbert product should be positioned to make his last season his best. When he redshirted as a freshman in 2015, the 6-5 Connolly weighed 251 pounds. He’s now listed at 305. He’s bigger, stronger and wiser.

Connolly has ideal measurables to play in the trenches in Marcel Yates’ scheme, where occupying blockers to keep the linebackers clean is among the defensive tackles’ primary responsibilities. Connolly also has shown a knack for making plays when given the chance, compiling nine tackles for losses, including 3.5 sacks, over the past three seasons.

The main challenge for Connolly in his fifth year is to show he can play that way consistently, not just in spurts. He’ll be given every opportunity to prove he’s capable of handling a heavier load.

Connolly should start at one of the two inside spots, with junior-college transfer Myles Tapusoa the favorite to open at the other. At 6-1, 330, Tapusoa possesses the bulk Arizona lost when Johnson elected to enter the 2019 NFL draft. (He was a seventh-round pick.)

Tapusoa flashed impressive strength and footwork early in spring practice, then missed considerable time because of an undisclosed injury. He returned to participate in the spring game, an encouraging sign for a player who, like Connolly, will be counted on to play a sizable role in 2019.

Two other returning players who could factor into the rotation are redshirt junior Jalen Cochran and redshirt freshman Nahe Sulunga. Cochran moved from defensive end to tackle in the spring. Yates sees Cochran – who’s listed at 6-3, 270 but might be closer to 6-4, 280 – as a prototypical “3-technique.” That might be the case, but Cochran must prove he can stay healthy after being plagued by injuries during his first three seasons.

Sulunga was considered a defensive end coming out of Calabasas (Calif.) High School. He made cameos in three games last season, preserving his redshirt, and UA coach Kevin Sumlin dubbed him a “wild card” during spring ball.

The problem is, Sulunga is undersized at 6-2, 265. He’s built similarly to 6-3, 258-pound JB Brown, who also moved inside at times during spring practice. The coaches would like to utilize him there this season, but only when they want to, not because they have to.

Arizona has two more defensive tackles, Kane Bradford and Trevon Mason, in its 2019 class. However, they were not yet enrolled as of this writing. The hope is that both will be on campus by the start of the second academic summer session on July 15. Training camp begins 11 days later.

Every candidate to play defensive tackle carries question marks into the 2019 season. Connolly has the fewest. His past production might not merit a spot in our top 11, but his projected role undoubtedly does.

MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.