When you look at the failures surrounding the Arizona Wildcats in 2016, you can point most fingers of blame towards the offensive line.
Now heading into 2017, the group should be better thanks to the tough experience, but health will be the key thing to watch up front if the Wildcats want to regain some past offensive success.
KEY LOSSES: Freddie Tagaloa
KEY RETURNERS: Jacob Alsadek, Nathan Eldridge, Layth Friekh, Gerhard de Beer, Christian Boettcher, Levi Walton, Cody Creason, Michael Eletise
KEY NEWCOMERS: Maisen Knight
Over the past several years, the position that’s really plagued Arizona has been center. Last year, it was due to the untimely and tragic death of Zach Hemmila, which cast a dark shadow over the team all season. Hemmila was expected to step up and be the leader of a promising front, but after passing away in his sleep during fall camp, Nathan Eldridge was thrust into that role as a redshirt freshman.
As expected, the communication upfront was subpar thanks to a freshman lining up at center, but now that we’re heading into 2017, that particular downfall should at least be somewhat resolved. Eldridge has been named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List after starting all 12 games last year.
Eldridge will likely be surrounded by a combined 18 starts from 2016 in Jacob Alsadek and Christian Boettcher. With Freddie Tagaloa’s lingering injury woes, Boettcher also got a lot more playing time than expected, which is just another potential bonus for the 2017 offensive line. In Alsadek’s case, he’s about to become a four-year starter at right guard, and seems to be the most likely guy to be a 2018 NFL Draft pick on the roster.
If Boettcher doesn’t progress and Michael Eletise lives up to his recruiting billing, maybe we see the Hawaiian move in to that spot as a redshirt freshman and potentially becoming the next Alsadek. Eletise also happens to be just one of two guys listed as a “tackle” on the online roster though despite being on the shorter side at 6-foot-3.
Moving out to tackle, it seems like Layth Friekh will be a lock on the left side after starting all 12 games at that position in 2016. Noted discus thrower/rugby player/South African Gerhard de Beer started last year at right tackle, but injuries of his own forced him to give way to Cody Creason.
Honestly, I’m still unsure if de Beer is a decent lineman now after not ever playing football before making his way to Tucson, or if Arizona was basically forced to put him out there last year because of the lack of options. Either way right tackle will also have someone with some experience, and with both Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate being right-handed throwers, it won’t matter as much on that side as it will on the left.
The confusing thing about Arizona’s offensive line situation is that while it seems like there’s a lot of experience to choose from, there is almost no depth. The true 2017 recruiting class had zero offensive linemen in it, and a late addition of junior college transfer Maisen Knight brings the current roster’s total of linemen to 13.
This lack of bodies could become a major issue when the Wildcats reach the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. Arizona’s bye week is after a Friday home game in week four, so they finish the year with eight straight conference games (five on the road). If there’s an injury or two up front, all of the sudden there isn’t the time to get them healthy for the next Saturday, and you’re potentially relying on a walk-on in a crucial spot.
Despite the lack of wins, Arizona still led the Pac-12 in rushing last year. So if the starters are able to stay healthy, the Wildcats could be alright up front. It’s just a matter of staying away from the injury bug (and running the ball a lot).