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Arizona’s defensive line looking to replace key starters, productive pass rush

Wildcats are shuffling bodies around to get a solid interior group going

arizona-wildcats-defensive-line-college-football-uiagalelei-boles-kevin-sumlin-spring-practice Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei and the Arizona Wildcats will be without two of their top defensive linemen in 2019, as three-year starter Dereck Boles graduated and standout junior college transfer PJ Johnson is headed to the NFL Draft after one season.

The duo ranked as two of the top four interior pass rushers in the Pac-12 last season, with Boles being the highest-graded of any.

“Oh, that’s tough,” Uiagelelei said when asked about replacing the production of Boles and Johnson. “They’re a big part of our D-line. They did a great job last year. But we got some good recruits coming in and guys here are working hard.”

The position is thin and Uiagelelei is having to shuffle some guys around to properly fill each position. He said Arizona will be shifting to more of a four-man front, after the defensive has been utilizing a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 the last few seasons under Marcel Yates.

“We’re going with a four-man front a little bit,” he said. “But, to me, the scheme is the same because we’ll go into a three-man front at times.

“But right now we’re just keeping it simple, keeping those four guys’ hand in the dirt. And we’re in the same room together, watching the same film, so they’re feeding off each other, understanding their responsibilities on the outside and inside and they can work hand in hand.”

So with a four-man front, now the question is who can fill the void left with Boles and Johnson gone?

“Guys are stepping up,” Uiagelelei said. “(Finton Connolly), Nahe Sulunga, he’s doing everything he’s taught to do and he’s getting better.”

Connolly is entering his fifth year in the program and fourth as a key contributor. At 6-foot-5 and 305 lbs., he’s giving Arizona the size the groups needs. Given the position shuffling, despite his familiarity at tackle, perhaps nose guard is better for him given his size relative to the group.

He has accumulated 39 tackles, seven for loss, and three and a half sacks.

Sulunga is a name that has been mentioned a couple of times this spring. Coming in as a grossly under-recruited and violent pass rusher, he added a good amount of weight and moved to defensive tackle, checking in at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds now.

He only saw action in three games last season as a true freshman, recording one solo tackle, however he was able to preserve his redshirt status. Sulunga has plenty of upside, but he’ll need to continue to progress this spring and throughout fall camp to solidify the role and produce.

Behind the two interior linemen mentioned comes a hodgepodge of guys who can be moved inside.

JB Brown, Arizona’s starting defensive end from 2018, is one of those guys. Coming into the program as a middle linebacker, he added weight rather than shedding and has started to thrive as a promising young talent on the defensive line.

“Inside, outside. And with him, he’s understanding the game,” Uiagelelei said of Brown. “Now they’ve been a year with me, so they know my expectations. But JB has really, really stepped it up and almost separate itself in terms of making plays, understanding the scheme, because he can go inside or outside.”

Also in the middle is junior college transfer Myles Tapusoa, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 330 lbs. While he’s currently dealing with an injury right now and being held out for precautionary depth reasons, he is in line for the starting nose guard spot.

Initially listed as a mid-year enrollee when he signed, Trevon Mason did not make it to campus for the spring, and will instead join the team in the summer. In a perfect world he’s the one you want starting at defensive tackle, playing a similar role to that of Johnson last season.

Also able to provide service in the middle now is Jalen Cochran, who had great size coming out of high school as an outside linebacker and has continued to bulk up to where he can provide depth to the interior. He earned a good amount of playing time last season, but only registered two tackles and a pass deflection, and will look to carve out a role on the inside now.

“He’s long and he’s athletic,” Uiagelelei said of Cochran. “He can be a great three-tech. He’s about 270, 275 (pounds), 6-foot-4, and I think he’s going to be a great inside guy for us.”

Uiagelelei also mentioned Kane Bradford, a member of the 2019 recruiting class who will join the program in the summer. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder has a load of raw athleticism, but comes in with a frame that desperately needs to be filled out over time.

The line isn’t in great shape right now, both with experience and health, so while it is unlikely given the technicalities of the position, Bradford still has a shot to earn some reps as a true freshman.

The defensive line is in a tough spot right now. Right now it looks like a mix-and-match of guys who will be moving around the line, which is great for versatility, but there’s a lot of unknowns still as many have very little Pac-12 experience.

Boles was one of the most underappreciated players in the program and Johnson had a sensational one-and-done season with Arizona. Now Uiagelelei desperately needs his junior college guys to run away with the position, and the depth to really develop and provide some reliable production.