Sure, it surrendered 34 points per game last season and was the reason Arizona went 7-6 despite having one of the most explosive offenses in the country, but almost every key player is back, including an outstanding core of linebackers and an elite cornerback in Jace Whittaker.
Arizona’s defense will improve, it’s just a matter of how much it improves.
So the No. 1 area of concern for the Wildcats right now is actually their offensive line — you know, the unit responsible for keeping Heisman candidate quarterback Khalil Tate on his feet.
Arizona lost three starters on its o-line from a season ago, and the two that are back — left tackle Layth Friekh and center Nathan Eldridge — have issues of their own.
Friekh is suspended for the first two games of the season, and Eldridge has missed several practices this fall with recurring knee problems.
That means Arizona could be breaking in five new starters in its opener against BYU next Saturday. It is an ominous situation, and head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn’t done much to quell any concerns, saying Arizona’s offensive line has been “a little bit of everything” in fall camp.
“It’s been more of a rotation at different positions to try to find the right pieces,” he said Wednesday. “I think a lot of times people think in terms of five guys, but when you’re a little bit thin at that position and you’ve got a guy (Freikh) who’s really out for a couple games you can’t just find the five, you’ve got to have a what-if plan.”
But even some of UA’s key backups are out of action, too. True freshman Donovan Laie, who Sumlin said has been doing really well, is currently out with a knee injury. Interior lineman Alex Kosinski has been limited this fall as well.
Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel, who played in five games with the Aggies last season, would be a solid option to start at guard or center, but he is not eligible to play right now due to NCAA transfer rules. (Though, that could change.)
Obviously if Arizona’s offensive line struggles, it will have trouble replicating the success it had last year, when it posted the third-best rushing attack in the country.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone admitted the o-line is a work in progress, but did shed some optimism that it will be ready to roll on Sept. 1 vs. BYU. (Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has not been available to the media this fall.)
“I think obviously the numbers are down there and there’s a lot of youth in that group,” Mazzone said last week. “I really have seen the lights kind of come on in just in the last two practices. I think they’re really starting to understand.
“What’s awesome is that we get to go against (defensive coordinator) Marcel (Yates) and he shows them a lot of different looks, a lot of movement and all the things you’re going to see during the season.”
Starting lineup projections
Our analysts Gabe Encinas and Brandon Combs took a stab at what UA’s starting offensive line will look like in the season-opener:
- LT Thiyo Lukusa
- LG Michael Eletise
- C Josh McCauley
- RG Bryson Cain
- RT Cody Creason