If you can play defensive line and have any college eligibility left, contact the University of Arizona. The Wildcats might be in a desperate situation Saturday.
Arizona could be without all three of its starting defensive linemen for the annual Territorial Cup game against Arizona State.
The three — Justin Belknap, Luca Bruno and Dereck Boles — got hurt last week at Oregon and did not return. UA coach Rich Rodriguez did not reveal the specifics or severity of their injuries Monday, but he did say the situation is “a concern.”
“We’ve got a few days to try to figure it out,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know who’s going to be back. Going against a team that can run the ball with big running backs and an athletic quarterback, we’ve gotta figure something out in a hurry.”
The Wildcats (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) were struggling on defense before Belknap, Bruno and Boles went down. The prospect of facing an improved ASU rushing attack without them is not appealing.
In their first eight games, the Sun Devils (6-5, 5-3) averaged 121.4 yards per game and 3.0 yards per rush. In their past three, those figures have jumped to 320.3 and 5.9.
Granted, those performances came against Colorado, UCLA and Oregon State — who rank at the bottom of the Pac-12 in run defense. Arizona averaged 468 rushing yards against those three teams.
Still, it appears the Sun Devils are catching the Wildcats at the right time — or the wrong time if you’re pulling for Arizona.
Rodriguez said the coaching staff probably would spend “all day” Monday discussing options along the defensive line.
At defensive tackle, the likely starters are redshirt sophomore Finton Connolly and senior Parker Zellers.
Connolly, who played at Campo Verde High in Gilbert, has never started but has been a regular in the rotation. He has 16 tackles, including 3.5 for losses, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Zellers did not play last week because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. Rodriguez indicated that Zellers likely will return this week.
“If he does what I think he will do, he should be ready to go Saturday,” Rodriguez said.
Zellers, who played at Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale, has 16 career starts. The former walk-on has 14 tackles in eight games this season.
Neither Connolly (275 pounds) nor Zellers (250) is as stout as Bruno (305) or Boles (296).
“You’ve gotta have some size,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t have 200-pounders at this level. We’re looking at any and all options.”
Senior Marcus Griffin cracked the defensive tackle rotation the past two weeks. Griffin has size (6-3, 305), but it hadn’t translated into a regular role until recently.
He has two tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup in five appearances.
Freshman Kurtis Brown (6-1, 285) played significant snaps before missing the past three games. Brown was listed as having a concussion for the first two, an illness for the third. He has seven tackles, including two for loss, in eight games.
The only other defensive tackles on the roster are transfer Sione Taufahema and walk-on Matt Thomas. Taufahema was on track to have a role this season before undergoing knee surgery in the summer. He has been practicing with the scout team, but Rodriguez said it wouldn’t be fair to Taufahema to lift his redshirt for one game.
“The guys that are injured, if we don’t get them back this week, then we should get them back for the bowl game,” Rodriguez said. “To burn a redshirt for a guy to play 10 or 12 plays doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It won’t be him.”
Redshirt junior Larry Tharpe Jr. (13 tackles, two for loss) could play inside – but he was the primary backup to Belknap and played extensively at end after Belknap got hurt in the first quarter in Eugene.
With freshman JB Brown (ankle) out, Arizona moved senior Jack Banda from tight end to defensive end, where he played the first four seasons of his career. Banda moved to tight end earlier this season. Banda, who has five career sacks, reappeared on the defensive depth chart Monday.
One other possibility is moving starting “Stud” Kylan Wilborn to end. Stud is a hybrid position, and Wilborn plays out of a three-point stance about half the time. Arizona could use veteran DeAndre’ Miller, who played sparingly against Oregon, at Stud in that scenario.
The Wildcats aren’t desperate enough to move an offensive lineman to the defensive line, although the way last week transpired, nothing can be ruled out.
“We’re thinking about everything,” Rodriguez said. “If we thought a guy that wasn’t a starting O-linemen could be in the mix, we would have probably moved him over last week or the week before.”
- Three-star defensive end Adam Plant of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High has re-committed to Arizona. Plant previously committed to the Wildcats in spring before backing out in June. He is listed at 6-3, 225 pounds and projects at end or Stud in Arizona’s scheme. Arizona has only one defensive tackle committed for 2018 and would like to add more before the Dec. 20-22 early signing period.
- Rodriguez erupted in anger after Dane Cruikshank taunted an Oregon player, wiping out a touchdown.
- Rodriguez was asked if that’s the maddest he’s been in a game. “If it’s not,” he said, “it’s in the top two.”
- Rodriguez is hopeful the Wildcats can find the right mix of competitiveness and intensity without crossing the line against the Sun Devils. He wants his team to be aggressive, but to stay “within the framework of the rules,” which didn’t always happen at Oregon.
- Rodriguez thought Khalil Tate and the offense “pressed a little bit” in the second half against the Ducks. Rodriguez said the Oregon game will be a learning experience for the sophomore quarterback. Rodriguez added that the coaching staff could do more to help him when certain plays aren’t working.
- Tate did not make the top three for the Maxwell (College Player of the Year) or Davey O’Brien (nation’s best QB) awards. He had been named a semifinalist for both.
- Unlike other conference road games, the entire team will travel to Tempe, Rodriguez said. Whether they’re playing or not, Rodriguez wants all of his players to get a feel for the intensity of the rivalry.
- Rodriguez and his staff will hit the recruiting trail next week. They would have done so even without a new early signing date, but its existence creates “a certain urgency,” Rodriguez said.
- Rodriguez acknowledged that the struggles of the punting unit are more mental than physical. “If you talk too much about it, it becomes more mental,” he said. “They’ve gotta just trust their ability.”