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Arizona football depth chart: Wildcats' offensive line returns several key players in 2016

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The Wildcats' o-line is striving to be a top-15 unit in college football

Jason Bartel

When asked to describe the Arizona Wildcats' offensive line personnel, o-line coach Jim Michalczik used one word: "workers".

"I think this is probably the hardest working unit [I've had]," he said at Arizona's media day.

Arizona's offensive line likely isn't the most talented unit in the Pac-12, and it certainly isn't the biggest, but they'd like to think they outwork — and outsmart — the competition.

That type of mentality is a direct reflection of Michalczik himself.

[He's] just a football genius," center Levi Walton said. "He lives for football. He'll come into our meeting and watch the film and he'll have already watched the film two, three times, has notes on it, and we meet longer than anyone else on the team."

"Any problem you have, [Michalczik] will figure it out," added center Nathan Eldridge. "He's a guru."

And before fall camp started, Michalczik made it clear what his expectations are for the hard-working unit this season. He handed out an article, which listed the top-15 offensive lines in college football, to each member of the offensive line.

Arizona was nowhere to be found on that list, and Michalczik's message was clear.

"He was trying to say 'why not us? Why can't we be up there?'," said guard Jacob Alsadek. "We can. I think this year we can. It's important to every one of us. We want to be the best offensive line in the country, and I really think we can do that."

Last season, Arizona's offensive line was inconsistent and certainly wasn't a top-15 caliber unit, to say the least. The Wildcats' running game wasn't as effective as years past and the quarterback play regressed as well, with part of that being the o-line's fault.

On a positive note, the Wildcats return a good number of players from last year's line, some of whom were key contributors, so an improvement seems to be highly possible. Head coach Rich Rodriguez even said he could see the unit being a strong point of the team.

Key losses: Zach Hemmila, Cayman Bundage, Lene Maiava

Key returners: Jacob Alsadek, Freddie Tagaloa, Layth Friekh, Gerhard de Beer, Nathan Eldridge, Levi Walton

Key newcomers: Michael Eletise, Keenan Walker (possibly?)

While coaches and players insist there's no depth chart, by now we have a pretty good understanding of what Arizona's starting offensive line will look like — at least at the beginning of the season.

Layth Friekh, who started the last nine games of the 2015 season at left tackle, will likely be starting at that position in 2016. Same goes for Jacob Alsadek, who is about to become a third-year starter at right guard.

Freddie Tagaloa, who initially started at left tackle and then moved to guard last season before injuries ended his year, has permanently moved to guard and figures to start on the left side next to Friekh. Michalczik feels Tagaloa is best as an inside lineman because of his strength and power, hence the move to keep him at that position.

Given the differences in style between Friekh and Tagaloa, it makes for an interesting dynamic on the left side of the line.

"You have Layth, who’s like a finesse player," Alsadek said. "Then you have Freddie who’s like ‘I’m way stronger than you so I’m going to bully you. '"

Health-wise, Tagaloa says he's at 100 percent, and Michalczik says it's just a matter of knocking the rust off right now.

At right tackle, Gerhard de Beer, whose work ethic was praised by Michalczik, appears to have a hold on the starting job. The South African started the final four games of the 2015 season at guard, and he's moved to tackle since then.

By all accounts, the transition is going well and he's been running with the first unit throughout the duration of fall camp.

That essentially makes the starting tackle and guard spots locked down, but the center spot remains a question mark.

It wasn't going to be this way, but the unexpected death of Zach Hemmila has put the position in flux once again. Hemmila was in line to start, and now it's a 'next man up' scenario at center for a second-straight year.

And that 'next man' isn't going to be a player with much — if any — real-game experience at the collegiate level.

Michalczik said redshirt freshman Nathan Eldridge and redshirt sophomore Levi Walton are "pushing each other" for the starting job. Eldridge, having redshirted last year, hasn't appeared in a game yet, while Walton has played in just two games.

According to Eldridge, Michalczik immediately had him practice with the first unit following Hemmila's death (something Eldridge admitted was shocking for him given that he's never played in a game before), so I'd expect he'd be the one to start against BYU on September 3, though it's still up in the air.

Of course, there's the question every Arizona fan wants to ask — can either one reliably snap the ball?

Considering what Arizona went through last year — with Cayman Bundage having snapping issues after transitioning from guard to center — it's understandable to ask that question.

Unlike Bundage though, Eldridge was brought in as a center and has been at the position since setting foot on campus in 2015, so it's not like he's learning on the fly.

Walton, on the other hand, admitted that snapping has been an issue for him in the past, but he's changed the way he grips the ball and he's improved since.

The centers snap 'nearly every day after practice', according to Michalczik, and a baseball-like drill has been implemented to evaluate how accurate the snaps are.

A graduate assistant, pretending to be a quarterback, wears a shirt marked with a bullseye on it. The centers snap the ball and if they hit the bullseye, it's a strike. If not, it's a ball. If they snap one out of the graduate assistant's reach altogether, it's a 'wild'.

At the end of the drill, the coaching staff tallies up the number of strikes each center had and the results have an influence on the competition for the starting job.

As far as newcomers on the offensive line go, there are two to keep an eye on (and for different reasons) — freshmen Michael Eletise and Keenan Walker, a pair of former four-star recruits.

Eletise was the prize of Arizona's 2015 recruiting class, and Michalczik believes he may contribute in some fashion this season. Eletise has moved all around the line in fall camp, taking reps at both guard and center.

"I do [like his versatility], but it’s also a downfall," Michalczik said. "As a young guy, you should keep him in one spot. I’ve moved him around, which makes it a little bit harder for him....Getting up to speed in the offense is always an issue for a true freshman. It’s kind of rare that they play, but he has a chance to help us this year."

Eletise, Michalczik said, will be sticking at guard for the foreseeable future.

For Walker, injuries (namely the recovery from a torn ACL) and off-the-field issues kept him off the 105-man fall camp roster, and it's still not clear if he'll be back with the team.

Walker is the highest-rated recruit Rodriguez has landed at the UA, so his status is certainly worth watching. At this point, it seems unlikely that Walker would make an impact this year even if he does return to the team, considering the amount of time he's missed.

Still, a talent like that would be a nice option to have down the road.

Finally, other linemen that could wind up getting playing time are redshirt freshmen Cody Creason and Alex Kosinski (both of whom Alsadek said could be breakout players), as well as redshirt sophomore Christian Boettcher.

Those three project as backups right now, but as Michalczik notes, the offensive line could look far different at the end of the season than it does at the beginning of the year. Who knows, maybe one or two of them wind up in the starting lineup at some point.

But for now, it looks as if Friekh, Tagaloa, Eldridge, Alsadek, and de Beer will be the starters for the season-opener versus BYU. It's a fairly experienced group, and whether they become a top-15 unit in the country or a strong point of the team remains to be seen, but at minimum, there are reasons to be optimistic.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapireUA