We're nearing the end. It's two days 'til kickoff and the official start of football season tonight. Left on my plate are the running back and quarterback previews. So far, we've discussed special teams, linebackers, wide receivers, the secondary and the offensive line. Now, we're talking the group that lost a player both schematically and literally. It's the defensive line.
Key returners: Sione Tuihalamaka, Dominique Austin, Chris Merrill, Willie Mobley
Key newcomers: Tevin Hood (transfer)
The Arizona Wildcats' defensive line is one less as of 2012. The inception of Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 defense comes at a time where change has never been needed more. Run support, pass rush, the whole shebang -- Arizona didn't have it last season.
Combining for only 10 sacks the entire season, perspective looks like this. In 2009 and 2010, the Wildcats' defense recorded 33 and 34 sacks with Ricky Elmore's 11 and 10.5 sacks in those respective years eclipsing the entire 2011 mark. While Elmore did have help with NFL players like Brooks Reed coming off the other edge and Earl Mitchell clogging up the middle at tackle, well, that just shows how far Arizona has fallen.
[RELATED: Arizona football depth chart]
That doesn't mean a retooling of the defense wasn't needed. Last year's leading sack artist was C.J. Parish, who recorded three on the year -- no other player had more than 1.5. This season, we won't expect Arizona to do much. Personnel isn't the personnel's fault, after all.The defensive line under Rich Rodriguez will be asked to stay within the scheme. Linebackers, safeties, spurs and bandits will be throwing help up front for a play here and a play there. Maybe even corners will be asked to sneak in a blitz on occasion.
Sione Tuihalamaka is the nose tackle in the front three, and he's the most experienced playing in this group. The 6-foot-2, 271 pound junior has 24 games of experience and 14 starts. He has 23 tackles in that time, but like a late-blooming Mitchell, will be the key in making opposing backs have to take contact or think twice about running up the gut of Casteel's defense.
Senior Chris Merrill and Dominique Austin are listed as starters alongside Tuihalamaka, and Austin might have the highest upside of the three. He redshirted last year because of injury and has experience under Stoops' teams as both a tackle and an end. At 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, he could be a problem against pass protection based on brute strength and his lanky arms that could help him bat down some passes at the line of scrimmage.
Behind the listed starters are Reggie Gilbert, a sophomore, and Willie Mobley, the one-time Ohio State recruit who was one of the players ruined by ACL problems last season.
At backup nose tackle is the most intriguing member of the defensive line. Duke transfer Tevin Hood is a stoutly, big-bodied 300 pounder. The junior recorded 11 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last year with the University of San Diego, after he left Duke due to a misunderstanding of a scholarship.
The loss of Justin Washington to suspension, as we've chronicled here, is a blow for the team. Washington looked like he could develop into something special during his freshman season, but off the field troubles and a less-than-stellar sophomore campaign put his future in jeopardy.
Taimi Tutogi will also see time at end while manning the fullback position, and freshman tight end Keoni Bush-Loo will possibly play at end or linebacker.
So what do you want to see out of a unit that's undergoing so much turnover, both in personnel and in scheme?
For one, the Wildcats must give the full depth chart an audition throughout the entire season.
While there doesn't appear to be any outstanding talent on paper, there are promising prospects that, again peeking back at Earl Mitchell, could develop into solid players if not NFL-caliber types. Mitchell was once a pass-catching fullback in the Arizona offense. Now he's starting at nose tackle -- although it's due to injury -- for the Houston Texans.
Maybe it'll be Sione Tuihalamaka having a breakout year, maybe the lanky Dominique Austin. Perhaps Tutogi will show he's required more on the defensive line than in the backfield. It's all about finding out where the value is and who can develop.
Oh, and with that whole 3-3-5 thing? They'll probably need to find out where that value is sooner rather than later.