Last year was a building year for Arizona's defensive line. While the team patched up some holes in the line entering the season, the results were mixed. Arizona ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, a stat that largely is attributable to defensive line play and would have been even worse if it weren't for linebacker Scooby Wright making plays in the backfield. And only one Arizona defensive lineman - Dan Pettinato - received any sort of conference recognition, as he was Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention.
Key losses: Dan Pettinato, Jordan Allen
Key returners: Reggie Gilbert, Parker Zellers, Calvin Allen, Jeff Worthy, Sani Fuimaono, Marcus Griffin, Luca Bruno
Key newcomers: Anthony Fotu, Sharif Williams
With all that said, Arizona's defensive line will be better in 2015 for a couple of reasons:
1. Arizona brings a lot of guys back.
Pettinato is gone to the NFL, but other than that, almost everyone is back. In particular, Reggie Gilbert was given a fifth year of eligibility for reasons I don't fully understand and may be one of the five or six best defensive ends in the conference. Arizona also brings back Parker Zellers, a redshirt sophomore who fought his way into the starting line-up last season, and Jeff Worthy, a former Boise State transfer who should see significant time. Zellers, in particular, will benefit from the increased reps he got in the spring and having a year of experience under his belt. Expect to see these three all starting for Arizona this season.
Pettinato is a significant loss, but it's a loss that Arizona can deal with.
2. There is actually some depth.
With all the players coming back on the defensive line, Arizona actually has some depth. Besides Gilbert, Zellers, and Worthy, Anthony Fotu, Sharif Williams, Marcus Griffin, Calvin Allen, Luca Bruno and Sani Fuimaono will all fight for playing time. Some of those players - particularly Fotu and Williams, both of whom are new to the program - may struggle for playing time, but Arizona has more talent on the defensive line than it has ever had during Rich Rodriguez's tenure, which should provide some insurance against injuries. At a minimum, the competition for playing time will elevate the play at defensive line.
So how good will the defensive line be in 2015?
ESPN has suggested Arizona's line is in "good shape." I'm hesitant to make that determination just yet. The defensive line has been the weakest part of Arizona's defense for a couple of years, and I want to see that unit produce on the field before I give that level of praise. Still, all the pieces are in place for Arizona's defensive line play to improve, and I'm cautiously optimistic that the unit will succeed in 2015.