Spring football for the Arizona Wildcats is starting a little later than it has in recent years, but it’s almost here. With Kevin Sumlin’s first full practice as UA coach scheduled for Monday, we will examine the state of his team for the remainder of this week (including two-a-days Thursday and Friday!). The series continues with a look at the edge rushers (defensive ends and "Studs").
Who’s here: Kylan Wilborn (6-2, 245, SO), Justin Belknap (6-3, 259, RS JR), Jalen Harris (6-4, 212, RS FR), My-King Johnson (6-4, 220, RS FR), JB Brown (6-3, 244, SO), Jose Ramirez (6-2, 240, RS FR), Jalen Cochran (6-3, 249, RS SO), Francisco Nelson III (6-2, 241, RS SO)
Who’s coming: Adam Plant (6-5, 240, FR), Nahe Sulunga (6-3, 255, FR)
The big question: Which young player is ready to step up and become the complementary edge rusher Arizona desperately needs?
The UA unearthed a gem last year in Wilborn, who went from under-the-radar three-star signee to leading the Wildcats in sacks and the Pac-12 in forced fumbles.
For this defense to take the next step, Wilborn will need a sidekick – or a collection of them – who matches or exceeds his production.
Belknap started opposite Wilborn for most of the season and finished with 2.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. Is he capable of more in his redshirt-junior season? Maybe. But there are a handful of younger players who might have higher upsides.
Let’s start with two returnees and two numbers that are more important than any stat I could throw at you. Harris and Johnson have the length you want in a defensive end/outside linebacker. Both are listed at 6-4.
Entering last season, neither had the requisite bulk. The weights you see above are from last year’s training camp. Assuming they’ve put in the work since then, those numbers should shoot up. Ideally, both will be at least 230 at this point, with room to grow.
Arizona used Harris early last season, even though he wasn’t physically ready. Harris’ pass-rushing potential – in particular his “get-off” – was just too great. He registered four tackles in four games before suffering a shoulder injury that enabled him to redshirt (and hopefully didn’t curtail his offseason work in the weight room).
Rivals ranked Johnson on par with Harris, but Johnson wasn’t physically ready either and spent the year as a redshirt. (Rivals had both ranked way ahead of Wilborn. So did 247Sports. So did everybody.) Johnson wasn’t as far along as Harris. Spring should give us an indication of whether Johnson has closed that gap.
Another 2017 freshman, Brown, also appeared in four games last season and was credited with two quarterback hits. He moved to defensive end after primarily playing inside linebacker in high school. It remains to be seen how the new staff will view him, but Brown at least belongs in the conversation of young pass rushers who could contribute more this year. A full spring at end undoubtedly would aid Brown’s development.
Among all of Arizona’s incoming freshmen, you could make the case that Plant and Sulunga have the best chance to play right away. Plant is the lone four-star prospect in the class, according to Rivals. 247Sports ranks him as the best non-quarterback among the UA’s signees. His measurables – Arizona lists Plant at 6-5, 240 – are ideal. We won’t know if he’s ready until August camp.
Sulunga also has an intriguing frame at 6-3, 255. That would have qualified him for defensive tackle duty in recent years. At the very least, Sulunga (and Plant) should push the returning veterans.
The best-case scenario here is that at least two players emerge to complement and push Wilborn, who ended up wearing down a bit late last season after playing too many snaps.
If that happens, Arizona might be able to generate a pass rush without having to blitz – something it hasn’t been able to do consistently in two years under Marcel Yates.
ARIZONA SPRING PREVIEW SERIES