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 over the next several weekdays. The series continues with a look at the interior defensive linemen – specifically, the defensive and nose tackles.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Who’s here: Dereck Boles (6-2, 296, RS SR) Finton Connolly (6-5, 275, RS JR), Sione Taufahema (6-1, 330, RS JR), Kurtis Brown (6-1, 285, SO), PJ Johnson (6-5, 315, RS JR), Mykee Irving (6-4, 320, FR)
Who’s coming: N/A
The big question: The Wildcats will be bigger up front in 2018, but will they be better?
A couple of housekeeping items before we proceed: (1) The defensive ends will be part of Wednesday’s post on edge rushers; and (2) Johnson and Irving are part of “who’s here” because they already have enrolled and will participate in spring practice.
Those two are as good a place to start as any. Both are listed at over 300 pounds. Both satisfy Arizona’s need for bigger bodies to occupy blockers and hold up against the run.
How much they’ll be able to contribute remains to be seen. Johnson should have a leg up on Irving because of his previous experience at Sacramento State and City College of San Francisco. Johnson also will have ample opportunity to crack a rotation whose only sure things are Boles and Connolly (if anyone is a sure thing during this coaching transition).
Of course, Taufahema came to Arizona under similar circumstances and ended up redshirting. An offseason knee scope limited his participation in training camp, and he could never quite catch up.
With Taufahema back in the mix, plus Johnson and Irving, Arizona is adding three 300-plus-pounders to a unit that otherwise wouldn’t have any. It sounds great on paper. But we won’t know if they’re fit enough to be difference makers until the pads come on in spring.
While everyone wants 300-pound players, they have to be able to move and sustain their effort and energy for more than a handful of plays at a time. Former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was no different than UA fans in clamoring for more size. But RichRod never met a 300-pounder who was in good enough shape to play right away, at least in my time on the beat.
Boles came in at just under 300 pounds and became an instant-impact performer. His 42 tackles were easily the most among the interior linemen. But Boles had just 1.5 stops for losses. That figure must increase in 2018.
Connolly led the interior group with 4.5 TFLs, including 2.5 sacks. Those aren’t monster numbers, but they’re something to build on for an ascending player.
Although Sumlin has the authority to order a few tweaks, the defensive scheme is expected to be largely the same under returning coordinator Marcel Yates. As such, the interior linemen likely will be asked to serve more as block-occupiers than up-the-field playmakers.
They’ll have a new coach in Iona Uiagalelei, who comes to Arizona with an excellent reputation despite never having coached at the Division I level. Uiagalelei undoubtedly will teach his charges some new and different techniques. Again, though, it’s impossible to say right now what impact that will have.
Despite having solid building blocks in Boles and Connolly - plus the scrappy Brown, who impressed at times as a freshman - the defensive line remains a source of skepticism. You’d like to think bigger will be better, but there’s no guarantee.
ARIZONA SPRING PREVIEW SERIES