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Arizona football: Walk-ons step up on Wildcats’ defensive line

A couple of guys not on scholarship ended up being two of the best defensive linemen for Arizona in 2016

NCAA Football: Grambling State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2016 season, the biggest question mark facing the Arizona Wildcats was how the defensive line would fare given its undersized nature.

There was plenty of veteran leadership (Sani Fuimaono and Aiulua Fanene for example), but there was also an interesting mix of highly thought of recruits (Marcus Griffin, Justin Holt, Finton Connolly).

But in the end, the season was about two guys not even on scholarship...Justin Belknap and Larry Tharpe Jr.

Belknap, a 6-foot-2, 247 pound redshirt freshman, had been getting a ton of praise throughout spring and fall camp, so the fact that he was starting at defensive end right out of the gate was not a huge surprise. He ended up starting 11 games, played in all 12, and recorded 16 tackles (2.5 for loss), one sack, and two pass breakups.

As the season wore on though, a guy who wasn’t even in fall camp, Larry Tharpe Jr., became one of the most disruptive forces up front for the Wildcat defensive line.

In just eight games, Tharpe matched Belknap’s tackle numbers, and instead of a sack had a third pass breakup, which was a crucial one in the third quarter of the Arizona State game. Five of his 12 tackles came in the season finale as well.

Tharpe found his way to Tucson from Tyler Junior College in Texas after originally attending Idaho State. It was an academics issue that prevented Tharpe from enrolling at Arizona before the first week of classes.

But the coaching staff’s patience paid off on this one.

“Yeah, what a story, huh?,” Rich Rodriguez said about Tharpe after the ASU victory. “I mean, unrecruited, I watched him on film, and he’s a walk-on at a junior college somewhere and I’m like ‘Who’s this guy? He might be good enough to help us out, at least on scout team’.”

“He’s worked his tail off and with a year in the offseason program, he’s gonna be a pretty good player.”

Parker Zellers, Luca Bruno, and Jack Banda will all be entering their final college season in 2017, but with two more years of Tharpe, and three more of Belknap, there are some solid pieces to build on as Arizona continues to transition into a new defensive system under Marcel Yates.