Since the likes of nose tackle Earl Mitchell and ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore left Arizona, there's been few reasons for opponents to worry about the Wildcats' rush coming from the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has engineered two surprising defenses in the last two years, but he has used safety and linebacker blitzes to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
There's no doubt he'd like to build a defensive line that can do more than hold its ground.
A small but speedy defensive line showed promise in 2013, but two key members exhausted their college eligibility and a transfer by a third contributor make the 2014 depth chart look like a patched up job. Rich Rodriguez hopes that isn't a bad thing.
Key losses: Sione Tuihalamaka, Tevin Hood, Kirifi Taula (transfer)
Key returners: Reggie Gilbert, Dan Pettinato, Dwight Melvin, Marcus Griffin
Key newcomers: Jordan Allen (LSU), Jeff Worthy (Boise State/Santa Ana College), Aiulua Fanene (returning from mission), Sani Fuimaono (returning from mission)
The Wildcats may not have played with one another much heading into the year. What they'll be relying upon is depth from a stable of options and leadership from two key returning defensive ends.
Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato return after helping Arizona limit opponents to 4.1 yards per rush and combine for a meager 17 sacks last year. Surprisingly enough, the Wildcats generally managed to keep quarterbacks from sitting in the pocket and waiting for the secondary coverage to break down, though Washington State's Connor Halliday and Cal's Jared Goff would beg to differ.
The 2014 group should have a little more depth and a little more size compared to last year's crew. Along with Gilbert and Pettinato, Sione Tuihalamaka and nose tackle Tevin Hood played the majority of snaps, not an ideal situation for a team that, of all teams, realizes that tag-teaming positions, especially along the lines, is necessary against high-tempo offenses. Hood and Tuihalamaka are gone, and Kirifi Taula's decision to transfer from the program added to the hurt.
Experience with one another might not be what Arizona has, but RichRod's defensive line will have a decent bit of experience in general.
LSU Tigers graduate transfer Jordan Allen will spend a single season at Arizona and comes in with high hopes but a few mars in terms of the expectations. The 6'6, 252 pound defensive end missed most of 2012 with an injury and returned last year only to lose his starting job early in the season. Allen finished with 16 tackles and two sacks despite his mid-season demotion.
Jeff Worthy is another addition who has gotten the reps at nose tackle as Hood's replacement. After being dismissed from Boise State and then playing at Santa Ana College, the 6'4, 287-pound lineman committed to Arizona just more than a year ago. He's slimmed down from a reported 298 pounds when he committed but there is some more size behind him as RichRod expectedly goes with a nose-tackle-by-committee mentality.
Aiulua Fanene is a 6'5, 303 pound redshirt sophomore from American Samoa who is one of two players that should give the Wildcats a boost fresh off mormon missions. Fanene
and Sani Fuimaono (Edited: Fuimaono has a broken foot and is sidelined for a while) should add valuable depth, though they are still adjusting to Rodriguez's style after spending time away from the program. That duo, along with redshirt sophomore end Dwight Melvin and true freshman 300-pounder Marcus Griffin, could be relied upon to give the first-team players a breather.
Training camp hasn't been kind to the line. Gilbert has been banged up, and the newer players on the squad are still finding familiarity. They're still not comfortable in being uncomfortable, as Rodriguez likes to put it.
It's a patchwork of players for sure, but Rodriguez has to like a few more options from past seasons.