University of Arizona vs Colorado

Jalen Harris, left, is capable of impacting a game at a level few Arizona defenders can match.

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. 5: DE Jalen Harris

Height/weight/year: 6-4, 242, redshirt sophomore

Key 2018 stats: 27 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 sacks, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble

Comment: This is about upside and the impact Harris could have if he starts to realize his potential.

If he puts it all together, Harris is capable of reaching double-digit sacks. He might be the only player on the team who could hit that mark. No one on last year’s squad had more than 3.5.

And man, does Arizona need somebody like that. The UA defense struggled for a variety of reasons last season. The lack of a consistent pass rush – especially in third-down situations – was one of them.

The Wildcats ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with 23 sacks last season. Their average of 1.92 per game was down from 2.38 the previous season. The top pass-rushing defenses in the league average about three sacks per game.

Arizona’s takeaways also were down. They had 25 in 13 games in 2017. Last year? Just 15 in 12 games. That drop-off didn’t happen by coincidence.

Arizona ranked last in the Pac-12 in pass defense, surrendering 269.5 yards per contest. Injuries at cornerback were a problem. A more forceful pass rush could have offset them.

It’s worth noting at this point that Harris didn’t become a starter until the final four games. He rotated with classmate Kylan Wilborn, who had 7.5 sacks as a freshman before enduring a sophomore slump last season. Wilborn remains part of Arizona’s plans, and there’s legitimate hope he can rediscover his rookie form.

But neither Wilborn nor any other edge rusher on the roster possesses Harris’ combination of length and quickness. He can use his long arms to get his hands on offensive linemen before they can get their hands on him. Or he can fly off the edge and beat them to the spot.

All of the above was on display during the spring game. Harris was the most disruptive player on the field, unofficially recording two sacks, an additional tackle for loss and a pair of quarterback pressures.

“If he continues to get stronger and stay in the 245- to 250-pound range, he’s got a really, really bright future,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said afterward. “He brings edge pressure with length. He also showed today playing the run from sideline to sideline. There were a couple times we just couldn’t block him.”

Adding strength and bulk always has been Harris’ biggest challenge. His listed weight as a freshman was 212 pounds. He still was good enough to earn playing time, appearing in four games before getting hurt (and preserving his redshirt).

Harris was up to 242 pounds this spring, and he said he’d like to play at 250 this season. He’ll need to be as sturdy as possible, because more will be asked of him by the Wildcats – and more attention will be paid to him by opponents.

Wilborn found out what that was like last season. Offensive coordinators knew who he was and schemed accordingly.

Harris’ profile isn’t that high yet. But if he blows up the way Sumlin and other expect him to early in the season, Pac-12 coaches will be ready for him come conference play.

Which would be a good problem to have. If Harris is able to draw disproportionate attention, it’ll open things up for the likes of Wilborn and JB Brown, another promising third-year pass rusher.

Harris hasn’t produced at the level of some of the other players in our countdown. But the opportunities are coming. The talent is there. Quarterbacks beware.

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.