Personally, I thought the Arizona Wildcats’ defense took the brunt of the criticism in 2016. But the offense was hit hard with injuries and couldn’t run effectively to even keep the defense on the sideline. There was only so much the defense could do at times before ultimately collapsing late in games.
Arizona will be without a lot of key pieces from 2016, but there is a young group of players coming back and a very important group of freshmen coming in. Still over two months away from the start of the season, I give you a projected depth chart for the defensive unit.
Starting up front, Arizona returns a good amount of their linemen, particularly some key redshirt seniors. The charge has to start with redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Belknap, who was finally awarded a scholarship this offseason. Jack Banda will help contribute as well.
Next to him at nose guard will likely be another former walk-on, fifth year man Parker Zellers. Arizona added a massive defensive lineman in the 2017 recruiting class with JuCo transfer Sione Taufahema, who is checking in around 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds.
I’m projecting yet another walk-on in Larry Tharpe Jr. to cap off the defensive line at the tackle position. Expect the redshirt senior Luca Bruno to rotate at that spot as well.
Is it gross that Arizona has three current/former walk-ons starting on the defensive line? Yes. Although, these walk-ons have stepped up big time over the last few years and will be a huge part of the defense. This is just the result of devastating injuries, failed junior college recruiting, and the inability to hold commitments over the last few years.
This next level of defenders has a lot of question marks. The Wildcats will be without their top five leading tacklers at linebacker from last season. The staff loaded up on linebackers in the 2017 recruiting class and they are going to have to rely heavily on that group.
Arizona returns DeAndre’ Miller, who was primed for a breakout season in 2016, but the staff favored John Kenny. Miller has the size and strength to wreak havoc on defense in his final year at Arizona. Behind Miller I like early enrollee freshman Jose Ramirez at the STUD position.
Middle linebackers won’t be coming in with a ton of experience. Brandon Rutt was the guy who spent the majority of the time at this position in the spring, and with him being a redshirt junior, he might get the first opportunity to prove himself. But this is where I suspect true freshman Josh Brown of Long Beach Poly or Colin Schooler, another true freshman, to get a chance to crack the rotation as well.
And at weak-side linebacker, it’ll be another safety-turned-linebacker with redshirt freshman Gavin Robertson after making great strides this spring and putting on some solid weight. Coming out of high school he was a big time hitter, and like Paul Magloire, could thrive after the position change. To back him up you could make the argument for Jacob Colacion, but I like early enrollee Tony Fields to show up here.
The secondary was very young in 2016 and returns almost everyone in 2017. Dane Cruikshank and Jace Whittaker will hold down their ends of the field at corner, with Cruikshank on the boundary and Whittaker playing the field.
Donté Williams really liked Malcolm Holland towards the end of the season and Lorenzo Burns could be a guy who graduates from his special teams role as a freshman — barring any injuries — to give the corners some depth.
The safeties all return, with Tristan Cooper coming in as a sophomore at the spur position, sophomore Isaiah Hayes at free safety, and junior Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles as the bandit. This is a really strong group that will see a lot of improvement from last season.
I would expect Anthony Mariscal to get meaningful reps behind Cooper at spur this season, and the same with Chacho Ulloa at bandit behind Flannigan-Fowles. Kwesi Mashack has been all around the secondary and could help alleviate the pressure.
Arizona has a lot of work to do on defense in 2017, but this group might not be as bad as people expect it to be. An experienced defensive line will help take up space for the young linebackers. And I like the chemistry between the secondary, especially now being coached by Marcel Yates.