It may not just be the gameplan that changes for Arizona’s defense from week to week this fall, the personnel down in the trenches could also go through a weekly overhaul.
Suddenly finding themselves with an abundance of big bodies up front, this after a dearth during the spring, the Wildcats hope to utilize that depth in as many ways as possible this season. They won’t be cycling in fresh bodies from one play to the next, they may be doing so with entire defensive line units.
“We’ve got a couple different plans depending on who we play,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We’ve got interchangeable parts. Some teams we play against, we’re gonna need larger guys. We want to get our best four on the field as much as possible.”
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said Sumlin hopes to have “at least eight or nine guys that can rotate” among the defensive tackle and end positions, with multiple guys able to line up at different spots defending on if Arizona is in a three- or four-man front.
“You want it to be where you have enough guys where you can have maybe a certain package with certain guys in and another package with other guys in, just to keep them fresh,” Yates said. “We’re trying to find that right group up front. I wouldn’t just say starters, we need a two-deep.”
Junior JB Brown has moved inside after lining up at defensive end last season—that itself a change from his freshman year, when he played linebacker—where he joins three of Arizona’s 2019 signees in junior college transfers Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa and freshman Kyon Barrs. Also in the middle are senior Finton Connolly and redshirt freshman Nahe Sulunga.
On the edge the Wildcats will lean heavily on sophomore Jalen Harris and junior Kylan Wilborn but can also turn to the likes of senior Justin Belknap and junior Jalen Cochran.
Wilborn is a bit of a forgotten entity, having started all 13 games in 2017 while earning multiple Freshman All-American honors but dealing with injuries the second half of last season that impacted his playing time and development.
“He was a little nicked up last year and he’s healthy now,” Sumlin said of Wilborn, who had 7.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman. “He’s got what guys refer to as twitch. He can get off the ball, he’s got great hands, he can rush the passer.”
Of all Arizona’s defensive linemen, Mason may be the X-factor, and a lot depends on if he’s able to get up to speed in such a short time period. Originally expected to be part of the spring enrollees, Mason didn’t arrive until just before training camp began.
“Trevon is coming along and we’re taking it slow with him to get him in shape,” Sumlin said. “He just got here, but he’s done some really, really good things. He’s a big guy and I asked him how much he weighed yesterday, and he had a big plate of macaroni and cheese, and he said 310. So he’s a little bit bigger than what we listed.”
Mason is listed at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds on Arizona’s online roster. Despite the extra weight, though, Yates said he’s seeing progress.
“He’s transitioning well,” Yates said. “Whenever you recruit a junior college kid to come in, you expect him to come in and play early. We want all 11 guys running to the ball because we want to hunt.”
While the defensive line rotation will continue to evolve, that process could also benefit Arizona’s offense. Senior offensive lineman Cody Creason said the constantly changing fronts he and his fellow blockers face is serving as great preparation for the week-to-week variance of opponents’ defenses.
“It helps a lot because when you play in the season, you’re going to go against some teams where every play you’re going against a little quick guy, and then you got some teams where it’s bull-rush, power moves every play,” Creason said.