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Arizona football Q&A: On the running backs, defensive line, and linebackers

Answering your football questions!

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We don’t know much about Kevin Sumlin’s Arizona Wildcats, except for the fact that the roster is extremely young, has strong talent sprinkled here and there, but lacks a lot of depth.

There have been a lot of questions surrounding the commencement of spring practice, and while there is no media access for our Tucson staff to learn about the team, I try to answer these questions for the people.

I’ve seen a lot of questions on Twitter and our comments about the running backs.

J.J. Taylor is the go-to guy, there’s no doubt about that. And there shouldn’t be a fear of his small body constantly taking hits. He may only be 5-foot-6, but he’s stacked with 180 pounds.

And the broken ankle he suffered his freshman year against Washington was him simply getting tangled up down low.

Taylor led Arizona running backs in carries (146) and yards (847) last season. And in 2018, I think he gets more, simply because you don’t have an experienced back like Nick Wilson, or a big-time bruiser to change the pace like Zach Green.

The big question has been the No. 2 back. I think that spot belongs to former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford. I somewhat understand why he wasn’t used much last season, because you had a strong trio ahead of him, but he probably shouldn’t have been played at all, burning his redshirt season for 13 carries.

Tilford has SEC size at 6-foot-2, pushing 210 pounds. The depth isn’t quite there at running back, and you figure that Sumlin utilizes the best talent available at the position.

I think Tilford can get close to 100 carries this season, for around 550 yards, and plays as more of a bruiser in the backfield. But he also has some shiftiness to him that can mix things up. But somewhere down the road, he’ll be the closest thing to Ka’Deem Carey since he’s left the program. When the time comes he will be the workhorse for Arizona.

A lot of people have been talking about Gary Brightwell, a surprise add to the 2017 class on signing day. He had an impressive summer and fall camp, and worked his way in as a receiver.

I’m interested to see where he lines up more under Sumlin, but his pass catching abilities makes his a versatile piece to the offense. I’m not sure he sees a huge workload, but I imagine him getting a couple carries a game.

Speaking of pass catching running back, one thing that constantly gets brought up about this new coaching staff is Noel Mazzone and his swing and screen passes out in the flats. And that fits perfectly with what Taylor does. He works best in open space, when he can take a carry outside the tackle box and then make a guy miss.

The screens and swing passes pretty much give Taylor a one-on-one situation with a linebacker or safety that he can out-juke 9/10 times. So I’m excited to see what Mazzone can do with Taylor out the backfield.

As I mentioned above, Brightwell has been lauded for his catching abilities. So that really opens things up for him, too.

Arizona has depth and size on the defensive line. The one problem: They’re inexperienced.

I have a running three-deep of the defensive line that looks like this:

  • Defensive end: Justin Belknap, My-King Johnson, Nahe Sulunga/Adam Plant
  • Nose guard: Dereck Boles, Finton Connolly, PJ Johnson
  • Defensive tackle: Kurtis Brown, Sione Taufahema, Mykee Irving

Belknap has pretty much been starting the past two years, and has filled out at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds. My-King Johnson took a redshirt year, as he looks to add to his 6-foot-4, 220 pound frame.

Nahe Sulunga is a really talented defensive end from the 2018 class who has yet to step foot on campus. He is checking out at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and I project him to be like a Kylan Wilborn/Reggie Gilbert hybrid.

Adam Plant is another 2018 signee, and is listed at 6-foot-5 and a very lean 240 pounds. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up being a No. 2 depending on how he picks up this fall.

The talent is there at defensive end, there’s just only one guy who has played in Pac-12 games.

At nose guard Arizona has an experienced big man in Dereck Boles, 6-foot-2, 296 pounds to occupy space. Finton Connolly has worked his way through the rotation, and he’s at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds. Together those two will likely be rotating the way it stands now.

Then Rich Rodriguez landed a big one with PJ Johnson. A 6-foot-5, 315 pound junior college transfer who is an absolute wild card. The luck just hasn’t been there for Rich Rodriguez junior college defensive linemen, but if Johnson can buck the trend that is an enormous addition to the line. He could even look at a starting role on the line at some point this season if he picks it up.

I think Kurtis Brown picks up where he left off during his freshman season and holds a starting role. A 6-foot-1, 285 pound defensive tackle, Brown probably has an even higher ceiling considering he was coming off meniscus surgery during his senior year of high school.

It was a big disappointment last season to hear that Sione Taufahema was battling through injury all of camp, and as a result gained a lot of bad weight. He’s now at 6-foot-3, 330 pounds, and also looks to buck the trend of poor junior college defensive linemen recruited by Rodriguez.

Lastly comes a true freshman with Mykee Irving. Listed at 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, he’s already bigger than mostof Arizona’s bigger linemen. I wasn’t in love with him as a recruit as much as others were, but he rounds out the top 10 linemen well, which is hard to imagine thinking of 10 viable options on the line.

Taking the average size of all 10 linemen listed, that’s an average weight of 277 pounds, much better than any combination Rodriguez has previously put out. Defensive end is still a bit small, likely hovering around 250 come week one. But nose guard and defensive tackles are will be around 300 and 311 pounds, respectively. All but two are over 6-foot-3, too.

Also, watch out for sophomore J.B. Brown, who came in as a linebacker but played a good amount on the defensive line at 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, still holding up his part.

Yeah, so Arizona has three freshman all-American linebackers, but behind that it’s not looking great. A lot of walk-ons and the remainder of the linebacker loaded 2017 class.

Jacob Colacion, Jalen Harris and Anthony Pandy pretty much round out the solid depth at linebacker. Lee Anderson and Carrington Vaughn have seen the field, but the aforementioned trio likely serve as stronger options as we go through the season.

Rodriguez adopted this recruiting philosophy a little late on defense, but he wanted his corners to be big enough to play safety, safeties big enough for linebacker, and linebackers big enough for the defensive line.

Paul Magloire Jr. was the poster boy of making the switch from safety to linebacker, and Gavin Robertson r. seemed like a promising spring standout before being hidden in the shadows by Tony Fields II, and ultimately leaving the program.

Rodriguez absolutely loaded up on safeties in his last few classes, and it’s tempting to switch some safeties to backers.

The good thing about Magloire and Roberston is they already came in with about 210 pounds on them, and bulked up another 15 pounds. But a lot of the safeties on the roster are coming in at 180 pounds, all around, mostly below, 6-feet as well.

So Troy Young is the guy who immediately pops out to me. While he’s going to have a strong role at bandit once Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles graduates, he’s still a sturdy 6-foot, 205 pound safety that can play in the box and go downhill.

I think Xavier Bell is another pretty option if he can bulk. He stands at 6-foot-2, 192 pounds on the latest roster, and he can probably hit 200 by fall camp. He was a big hitter out of Mater Dei and he’s likely a spur or bandit right now considering the heavy depth at free safety.

Now, if you’re willing to wait until fall camp, 2018 signees Dayven Coleman and Christian Young fit the bill perfectly.

Coleman, 6-foot-2 210 pounds, played linebacker in high school, and honestly after watching his film might just project more as a linebacker. That’s the kind of build and skill set that works best to move. He plays like a Tony Fields and could make for a solid weak-side linebacker.

Christian Young is my favorite recruit of the 2018 class, and at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he already comes in with good size, but I would see him as more of a spur. But the flexibility definitely makes the emergency linebacker depth look good until Sumlin addresses that.

Me too. And, I mean, the Pac-12 in general is looking really weak.

Sumlin has one of the most electrifying players in the country in Khalil Tate, and some really talented linebackers. There’s no depth, but the building blocks are there for him to build Arizona into a recent Stanford-type program.

Also, I’m pretty sure that if the Rose Bowl wasn’t a College Football Playoff destination in 2014, Arizona would have gone, but I could be, and am likely, wrong.