Maybe the most pressing task for the Arizona Wildcats heading into the 2018 season is constructing a formidable offensive line to protect star quarterback Khalil Tate and company.
Arizona lost three starters from last season’s O-line — which produced the No. 3 rushing attack in the country — while another starter, left tackle Layth Friekh, is suspended for the first two games of the season.
Meanwhile, starting center Nathan Eldridge’s status for the opener is in doubt, since he has dealt with recurring knee issues since the spring. Adding all that together, there is a strong chance Arizona will be breaking in five new offensive linemen in the opener vs. BYU on Saturday. Four, at the very least.
The unit was described as a “work in progress” by offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone a couple weeks ago, but head coach Kevin Sumlin said Monday at his weekly presser that it is starting to come together as the Sept. 1 season opener draws near.
“We better be coming together pretty quickly,” he quipped. “We’ve made some strides, certainly, in the last three or four days. This whole o-line situation is being solidified.”
Our analysts Gabe Encinas and Brandon Combs project Arizona will start Thiyo Lukusa at left tackle, Michael Eletise at left guard, Josh McCauley at center, Bryson Cain at right guard and Cody Creason at right tackle against BYU. Creason is the only player in that group that has ever made a start.
Arizona’s O-line will undoubtedly get a boost when Friekh returns against Southern Utah in Week 3, but Sumlin wants to make sure the Wildcats have a plan in place to reinsert him once his suspension is lifted, rather than doing it on the fly.
“You’re looking at two scenarios,” Sumlin said. “The first two games and then when he comes back, now what? All of those scenarios are being addressed, not just for the first two weeks but for the whole season. What’s easiest for us is to get that solidified now.”
BYU went 4-9 last season, but was solid defensively, holding its opponents to 21 points or fewer seven times. The Cougars, who return seven starters on defense, were particularly stout against the run, limiting opposing rushing attacks to 3.7 yards per carry.
Their defense is spearheaded by Khyiris Tonga, a mountainous 6-foot-4, 340-pound defense tackle. BYU has two other DTs weighing 300 pounds or more, plus a few other d-linemen pushing the 280-pound mark. Defensive ends Corbin and Devin Kaufusi are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-7, respectively.
So Arizona’s revamped offensive line has a big challenge to kick off the 2018 season — literally.
“BYU is a well-coached team, it will be as large a team as we’ll face this year,” Sumlin said. “This is going to be a large football team.”