Arizona vs. UTEP

Arizona guard Michael Eletise (75) should be in line for a much bigger role this season after playing as a reserve in 2017. 

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 next Monday, we will examine the state of his team over the next several weekdays. The series resumes with a look at the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Who’s here: OT Layth Friekh (6-5, 302, RS SR), C Nathan Eldridge (6-3, 297, RS JR), OG Michael Eletise (6-3, 318, RS SO), OT Tshiyombu Lukusa (6-5, 330, RS SO), OT Cody Creason (6-4, 294, RS JR), OT Bryson Cain (6-4, 291, RS SO), OG Alex Kosinski (6-4, 299, RS JR), OT Maisen Knight (6-5, 279, RS SO), OT Edgar Burrola (6-5, 293, RS FR)

Who’s coming: OG-C Steven Bailey (6-2, 290, JR), OT Donovan Laie (6-6, 290, FR), OT-OG David Watson (6-5, 290, FR)

The big question: Despite some key losses, could the offensive line be even better this season than it was last year?

It’s a tall task, to be sure. The line was the Wildcats’ most consistent unit in 2017, helping Arizona average 309.3 rushing yards per game – third most in the country. The Wildcats also surrendered only 19 sacks, tying for 25th nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.46).

Last year’s unit featured three heady, veteran starters in Jacob Alsadek, Gerhard de Beer and Christian Boettcher, none of whom are around anymore.

Alsadek and de Beer ran out of eligibility; Boettcher elected to stop playing after his redshirt-junior season.

Alsadek and de Beer, the primary right-side duo, have a chance to be pros. Boettcher turned into a much better player than I initially thought he could be.

It’s a lot to replace. Additionally, Friekh, the starting left tackle, won’t be available for the first two games, the price he must pay for receiving an additional year of eligibility.

Given all that – and a worrisome lack of experienced depth – how could this year’s line possibly surpass last year’s?

For starters, Eldridge will be entering his third year as a starter. He was among the most improved Wildcats a year ago, and he’ll be a strong candidate for all-conference honors.

Second, Eletise should be ready to ascend to the starting lineup. A four-star recruit in the class of 2016, Eletise redshirted that year and appeared in 10 games as a reserve last season. He’s among the strongest players on the team and represents a talent upgrade over Boettcher at left guard. Whether Eletise can learn to play with the same smarts and technique remains to be seen.

Lukusa earned raves from coaches and teammates for his work on the scout team. The transfer from Michigan State – who played for the Spartans as a true freshman – will be eligible in 2018. If he’s as good as advertised, he’ll be starting somewhere against BYU, whether it’s at left tackle in place of Friekh or on the right side in place of de Beer.

Arizona has other options at tackle. Cain was in line for a top backup role before suffering a season-ending injury in training camp. Creason split time with de Beer and has proved to be a Pac-12-caliber starter.

Inside, Kosinski is a prime candidate to succeed Alsadek at right guard. Kosinski appeared in 15 games over the past two seasons. As Alsadek’s main backup, Kosinski learned from one of the best.

More than any other position group, the offensive line needs time to gel. It won’t be easy for this unit, which must replace three starters, manage Friekh’s unusual situation and learn a whole new set of rules and techniques from first-year line coach Joe Gilbert.

But with the “additions” of Eletise and Lukusa, the line will be more talented. That talent just happens to be relatively unrefined. For now.

ARIZONA SPRING PREVIEW SERIES