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Arizona football depth chart: Previewing the Wildcats’ 2017 defensive line

The defensive line needs to generate a better pass rush in 2017

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats registered 22 sacks last season and only nine were credited to defensive linemen.

This put them in ninth place in the conference and their 22 sacks were nearly half of Utah’s (43) and Washington’s (40).

It has been a point of concern for a while and this metric will improve if the line can get a push to create pressure on the quarterback.

KEY LOSSES: Aiulua Fanene, Sani Fuimaono, Justin Holt

KEY RETURNERS: Jack Banda (DE), Justin Belknap (DE), Luca Bruno, Finton Connolly, Marcus Griffin, DeAndre’ Miller (DE), Larry Tharpe Jr., Parker Zellers

KEY ADDITIONS: Dereck Boles (Boise State/JUCO), Kurtis Brown, Jalen Harris, My-King Johnson, Anthony Pandy, Sione Taufahema (JUCO)

Arizona is returning a key group from last season’s defensive line as it only lost two key contributors in Aiulua Fanene and Sani Fuimaono. Redshirt freshman Justin Holt medically retired in the offseason, but recently appeared in the news upon an announcement of a change of heart to continue his football career at Eastern Arizona Community College in 2017. Holt never played a snap for the Wildcats, but the Tucson product was expected to play a big role during his time with the program.

Arizona’s defensive line will have many recognizable names and is led by four key seniors: Jack Banda, Luca Bruno, DeAndre’ Miller and Parker Zellers. These four have been key pieces to the line over the last two seasons and will be asked to play major roles in their final season.

Miller and Zellers look to bounce back from an injury-riddled junior season campaign. They had impressive performances during the 2015 season which surrounded them with some hype leading into last season. Despite playing in nine of the team’s 12 games, they were never fully healthy which made for an overall disappointing 2016 season.

Banda and Bruno were far more reliable as they played in 12 and 11 games, respectively. They should be expected to finish their college careers with their strongest performances yet.

The two lone returning juniors, Larry Tharpe Jr. and Marcus Griffin, are arguably the most talented up front. The former walk-on Tharpe did not see much playing time during non-conference play but his snap count sky rocketed once conference play started. In his eight games, he recorded 16 tackles with 2.5 for a loss and three pass deflections.

Griffin, a former four-star recruit, has been underwhelming with his production throughout his time at Arizona. Coming out of high school, he was selected to multiple All-State and All-American teams. In fact, Griffin never lost a game in high school. He possesses the size and talent to have a breakout year. His playing time has been limited over the past two seasons, but will change if he can pull his game together.

As for the sophomores, this is a group that includes Justin Belknap, Finton Connolly and Tucson product Matt Thomas. Belknap is the most recognizable name of the group after having a highly productive redshirt freshman season in which he played in all 12 games and started 11. The staff was so impressed with his production that they made him a scholarship player on Mother’s Day.

Connolly and Thomas are two players that you may not be as familiar with. Connolly appeared in seven games last season, but certainly looks the part at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds. Thomas redshirted last season after transferring in from Wabash College in Indiana. He, like Connolly, has the size at 6-foot-1, 280 pounds to be a real asset to this group over the next few years.

Arizona’s defensive line has received criticism regarding their lack of size and inability to pressure the quarterback. Rich Rodriguez and Marcel Yates attempted to address these concerns in the 2017 class by signing defensive tackles Sione Taufahema (320 pounds) and Kurtis Brown (285 pounds). They were also able to land one was Yates’ former players at Boise State in Dereck Boles (296 pounds), assuming he academically qualifies.

As for the pass rush, Arizona was able to land two of the top in-state defensive ends in Jalen Harris and My-King Johnson, in addition to Southern California product Anthony Pandy. These three follow up on a 2016 recruiting class that signed talented edge rushers Francisco Nelson and Jalen Cochran.

Taufahema and Boles are the most likely newcomers to see an ample amount of playing time this year, but it’s nice to see young talent waiting in the wings.