Arizona Wildcats portrait day

Veteran left tackle Layth Friekh's value to Arizona might never be more evident than in the first two games of 2018, when he has to sit out.

If this season plays out as expected for the Arizona Wildcats, we know who the team MVP will be. Heck, Khalil Tate might even make a run for the Heisman Trophy.

The junior quarterback’s top-dog status is so secure that it’s pointless to include him in a countdown of the most valuable UA players of 2018. No one else could possibly be No. 1 on that list.

A more instructive exercise would be to count down the next 10 most valuable Wildcats, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do over the next several weeks.

Before we begin, a couple of quick notes:

  • “Most valuable” does not necessarily mean “best.” Rather, we’re defining it as the contributions and traits that most influence winning football. They include talent, leadership and projected role and production.
  • Newcomers were not eligible for the list. Even though freshmen played a huge role on last year’s team, it’s just too hard to predict who will have an immediate impact before training camp gets underway.

One more thing … a shout-out to the five players who barely missed the cut. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

  • DE Justin Belknap: A veteran leader who finished spring strong, Belknap just hasn’t had enough consistent production to crack the top 10.
  • S Tristan Cooper: The favorite to succeed Dane Cruikshank at the “Spur” position, but Cooper will be pushed by youngsters.
  • OG Michael Eletise: His strength and upside are enormous, and he finally has a clear path to playing time, but he still must prove it on the field.
  • K Lucas Havrisik: He’s already great on kickoffs, he could take over the placekicking job and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s a top-10 MVP candidate by season’s end.
  • WR Shawn Poindexter: A breakout star in the spring who could have a bigger role in Noel Mazzone’s new offense, Poindexter just doesn’t have enough of a track record … yet.

And now, we commence the countdown:

NO. 10: OT LAYTH FRIEKH

Ht/Wt/Yr: 6-5, 302, redshirt senior

Comment: We might find out just how valuable Friekh is in the first two weeks of the season.

Friekh must sit out the BYU and Houston games after essentially cutting a deal with the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility. As a result, the Wildcats will be without the player who’s probably their most reliable lineman.

We know Houston – featuring defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who could end up as the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft – will present a stiff challenge. But don’t overlook BYU just because the Cougars went 4-9 last year.

Most of BYU’s problems in 2017 emanated from the offensive side of the ball. The Cougars ranked in the bottom 12 in the nation in total offense and scoring.

Meanwhile, BYU ranked in the top 51 in total defense and points allowed – a nifty feat given how little help the offense provided.

In its 2018 BYU preview, CollegeFootballNews.com ranked defensive ends DE Sione Takitaki and Corbin Kaufusi as the Cougars’ best defensive players. The two combined for 11 sacks and 20 total tackles for losses last season.

You’d like to have a seasoned left tackle for a matchup like that. In lieu of Friekh, the starter could be the still somewhat mysterious Tshiyombu Lukusa, a redshirt sophomore who hasn’t played since 2016, or perhaps veteran Cody Creason, a part-time starter at right tackle last year.

Friekh enters 2018 with 34 career starts, including every game the past two seasons. His streak of 33 straight starts will end when he has to sit out Weeks 1 and 2.

It’s a suboptimal situation for an offensive line that’s in a state of flux. The only other returning full-time starter is center Nathan Eldridge. It always takes time for offensive lines to gel, and Friekh having to sit out the first two games will only delay that process.

The good news: He’ll be back for Week 3 against Southern Utah, giving him a game to get acclimated – and for the line to take its true form – before the Pac-12 opener at Oregon State. Even better, Friekh & Co. will have those two games to prepare for their biggest test: USC on Sept. 29.

Friekh is one of those steady players whom you don’t notice all that often because he generally does his job and does it well. But you’ll notice his absence – and appreciate his value – if Tate is running for his life against BYU and Houston.