The reality struck Layth Friekh when the bus pulled away on the Friday before the season opener. The Arizona Wildcats were bound for the team hotel. Friekh wouldn’t be able to join them.
“That’s when it really hit me: ‘Man, I’m not going to play this week,’” the senior tackle said Tuesday. “Since then, I’ve just been waiting.”
The longest two weeks of Friekh’s life are finally over. His two-game hiatus, the result of a plea deal of sorts with the NCAA, has come to an end. Arizona’s most experienced, durable offensive lineman will return to the starting lineup Saturday night against Southern Utah.
Boy, do the Wildcats need him.
Arizona’s offense has struggled to finish drives. Big plays have been rare. The Wildcats’ green offensive line — almost bereft of starting experience — personified the inconsistency that has plagued the entire offensive unit.
Friekh’s return won’t solve all of Arizona’s woes, but it will help.
“He’s a veteran guy,” said senior receiver Shawn Poindexter, who also played with Friekh in high school. “This’ll be his fourth year (as a starter). Just having that leadership on the field for those offensive linemen is going to be huge.”
Friekh tried his best to lead and contribute, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re not part of the game plan. Friekh said he’s tired of explaining why that was the case, so we’ll revisit it one last time. He appeared briefly in one game as a freshman in 2014. Under NCAA rules that recently were amended, that cost Friekh a year of eligibility.
He and the university appealed to the NCAA for a fifth season. The NCAA granted the request but determined that Friekh would have to sit the first two games.
When the NCAA approved a rule change in June, allowing players to participate in up to four games without losing their redshirt, Friekh and his camp tried to get his “suspension” reduced. The NCAA turned them down.
“They said if they were to do it for me, they’d have 100 more people they’d have to do it for,” Friekh said.
So a player who started every game the past two seasons — and 34 in his career — knew he wouldn’t be able to play, let alone start, in the first two. Friekh accepted his fate and dutifully participated in training camp, sometimes working with the third-team line.
He kept a positive attitude, but his patience ran thin once the season started.
“That saying’s true: You don’t know what you have until you lose it,” Friekh said. “It was definitely heartbreaking sometimes.”
Friekh couldn’t remember the last time he watched a game from home. Even as a seldom-used freshman, he dressed regularly. Watching from afar with teammates who were injured was a new experience — one he’d rather not repeat.
“Staying at home, knowing you could help, knowing you could make a difference, it sucks, it really does,” Friekh said.
Friekh wouldn’t follow the ball while watching Arizona’s offense. He would zero in on the offensive line.
Inevitably, Friekh would end up “yelling and cussing,” he said. “Even if we had a good play.”
The first two games produced more negative plays than positive ones. Friekh felt helpless as the young line suffered critical, untimely breakdowns in losses to BYU and Houston.
He’s hopeful that his veteran presence will have an immediate impact.
“Experience. Calm voice,” he said. “ ‘All right, we’ve been through this before. Keep going. Stay the course.’ ”
Friekh’s return won’t be the only change up front. The plan is to move freshman Donovan Laie from left tackle to right tackle, and Cody Creason from right tackle to left guard. Friekh is looking forward to playing alongside Creason, who had been the line’s elder statesman while Friekh was out.
“It’s cool. Cody’s one of my buddies,” Friekh said. “I’m glad he’s moving over to the left side. That’s somebody I can trust.
“I know he’s willing to put the work in. I know what he’s about. I’ve played with him for the last three years. I’m excited for him to come over. We’ll see what we can do.”
Friekh has been practicing with the scout team. But he’s been around long enough to know that isn’t the same as being in game shape. He plans to use the Southern Utah game to get his legs back and get used to his new line mates.
“It’s like a whole new O-line now,” Friekh said. “Hopefully we get our communication down.”
Poindexter is one of the few Wildcats who has consistently produced.
Coming off a career game at Houston, Poindexter leads the team with 11 receptions for 202 yards. He had 19 catches all of last season.
There’s one problem, though: Arizona is 0-2.
“I was just talking with my father the other day,” Poindexter said. “I was telling him, ‘Yeah, it was nice to be able to show the world what I can do. But at the expense of a loss like that, I can’t really enjoy it.’ ”
Poindexter set personal bests with seven catches for 134 yards against Houston, earning a spot on Pro Football Focus’ Pac-12 Team of the Week. He had the second-highest grade of any offensive player, trailing only Oregon State quarterback Conor Blount.
Like Friekh, Poindexter applied for an extra year of eligibility. Unlike Friekh, he didn’t have to pay a penalty.
The hard-working transfer from Glendale Community College is taking full advantage of his opportunity. While quarterback Khalil Tate has struggled to adjust to a new system, Poindexter has made a quick transition into a featured role.
“I don’t know what he did before,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said. “I just know he’s a good player. I said that during fall camp. He’s going to continue to improve.”
- Sumlin provided an update on Tate’s health, saying he was “at practice” Monday, isn’t 100 percent but should improve over the course of the week. Tate sprained his left ankle against Houston, hampering him for much of the game.
- Defensive tackle Dereck Boles and safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles are both expected to be available Saturday, Sumlin said. Both left the Houston game because of injuries and did not return.
- Former UA offensive lineman Gerhard de Beer was released from the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad.