With the 2016 season around the corner, the Arizona Wildcats have a few questions that have hopefully been answered during fall camp. The biggest question of course is the defense, and to take it a step further, the defensive line.
Last year the defensive line struggled. They weren’t effective at putting pressure on the quarterback or getting into the backfield for negative yardage plays. One reason could’ve been the "bend, don’t break" style of defensive play. That, however, will not be the case this year.
Key Losses: Reggie Gilbert, Anthony Fotu, Jeff Worthy, Sharif Williams, Josh Allen
Key Returners: Luca Bruno, Justin Belknap, Jack Banda, Finton Connolly, Parker Zellers, Calvin Allen, Marcus Griffin, Sani Fuimaono, Aiulua Fanene
Key Additions: Justin Holt, Darrell Cloy Jr.
After the 2015 season, Rich Rodriguez decided to revamp the defense. He fired the defensive staff and hired younger, more aggressive coaches. This is where Vince Amey comes in.
Coach Amey was hired as the defensive line coach in February 2016 after serving as the assistant strength and conditioning coach and a football analyst at Arizona. He is already starting to have an impact as the DL coach.
"Toe-to-toe no," Amey said when asked if Arizona’s undersized d-line can match up against bigger o-lines. "We have Fish (Fanene) that’s a bigger guy who knows that he’s got to compliment Zellers. A lot of movement. But if we go toe-to-toe, we won’t be able to hold up with the bigger guys. So we have to move around a lot, stem, and stuff like that."
Due to his coaching style and what he wants from his players, I believe that most if not all the DL will benefit.
Darrell Cloy Jr.
The 6-foot-2, 259 pound sophomore made the switch from tight end to defensive line during the spring. For the most part, Cloy has had himself a quiet fall. However, I do expect him to see the field this year even though it might not be as a starter.
Bruno played and started 11 games last season. He racked up 29 tackles including 1.5 TFL and a sack. Even though he has been limited during fall camp due to injury (for example he’s been wearing a walking boot), he will be a pivotal part of this year’s line. The redshirt junior has the size (6-foot-4, 295 pounds) and experience that Arizona needs.
The 6-foot-5, 308 pound redshirt senior made the transition from offensive line over to the defense this spring. He wasn’t being used much on the OL so the staff decided his size and skills could be more effective on the DL. During fall camp, he has been making steady progress and is one of the players that is able to get into the backfield multiple times. He may not be a starter right away, but he’ll definitely make an impact this season.
The redshirt freshman walk-on has been the talk of the defensive line the entire camp. At 6-foot-2, 247 pounds, he may be considered undersized, but that doesn’t stop him. RichRod, Amey, and Marcel Yates have all been impressed by his motor and football IQ. Let’s not forget the numerous compliments he has received from his fellow teammates. Justin Belknap is a name Arizona fans should get familiar with this year.
Connolly is a redshirt freshman who has had himself a pretty quiet fall camp. He has much-needed size, checking in at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds. If he can have a solid finish to camp, he should see himself on the field this year.
Banda, who is 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, is no doubt going to be a contributor in his redshirt junior year. He has a high motor and was one of the few linemen last year to disrupt plays in the backfield. He played in 13 games with one start and finished the season with 7 tackles, 4.0 TFL, and 3.0 sacks.
Zellers, 6-foot-1, 247 pounds, is another high-motor, smart football player. Last year he played in 12 games and racked up 17 tackles with one TFL. The redshirt junior is someone I believe will benefit even more with the new defensive playing style. Just like Belknap, he may be undersized, but he plays a lot bigger.
Allen has been either limited or not participating in a good chunk of fall camp this year. He has an undisclosed injury and has been working to get healthy. I like Allen’s size (6-foot-6, 281 pounds) and believe he will be a contributor once he is healthy. He had six tackles, 1.0 TFL, and 1.0 sacks in 12 games last year.
Over the summer Griffin has slimmed down from 302 pounds to around 289. This is due to his move from nose guard to tackle. He is a player who has been rejuvenated with the staff and style changes. He has shown a lot of hustle during camp and has put himself into a great position moving into the season. He recorded two tackles in three games last year.
Fuimaono is not only a leader on the defensive line but also in the locker room. He too has transitioned from nose guard to defensive tackle and as a result slimmed down. At 6-foot-1, 271 pounds, the senior lineman has said that he feels great after losing weight and has noticed the recovery process is significantly shorter. Fuimaono will be the anchor for this defensive line. He recorded 24 tackles, 3.0 TFL, and 1.5 sacks in 13 games (12 starts) last season.
The freshman broke his fibula last November and has been working to get back in shape. In fact, his first practice was last Saturday at Fort Huachuca. Since then he has shown signs of progress, however, he most likely will not see the field this year. A redshirt year would do wonders for him and hone the skills that drew Arizona to him. It should be noted that if he does put in the work and learns the defense, he could see playing time later this year.
Two other players to keep an eye on are freshmen Jalen Cochran and Francisco Nelson. Both have worked with the linebackers and the defensive line. They both will likely be hybrid LB/DE, better known as STUD in Marcel Yates’ defenses.