The Arizona Wildcats have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country under Kevin Sumlin and the struggles start up front.
The Wildcats have been dead-last in the Pac-12 in sacks the past two seasons. Last year they only recorded 17 sacks in 12 games, five fewer than the next Pac-12 team (Colorado).
With an inexperienced secondary and a revamped linebackers corp, Arizona’s defensive woes will continue this season if it cannot get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
So how can Arizona and its new defensive coaching staff do that without sending too many blitzes? Here are some guys they will be leaning on.
JB Brown, DL, Sr.
Actually, let’s start with a guy Arizona won’t have at its disposal. Brown opted out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. The versatile defensive lineman was second on the team in sacks last year, racking up three in 12 games. A notable loss, for sure.
Jalen Harris, DE/LB, RS Jr.
With Brown out of the mix, Harris is easily Arizona’s most notable pass rusher. He already led the Wildcats in sacks last season with four. He’s added a lot of weight to his long 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame. That plus a new coaching staff—one that has a coach (Andy Buh) assigned specifically to the outside linebackers—may help Harris unlock even more of his potential.
“Last year I was playing more hand in the ground, but this year they got me playing hand in the ground, but also off the ball a little bit so I’m able to drop coverage and rush the passer and keep the offense on their toes because they don’t know if I’m coming or dropping,” Harris said during fall camp. “Last year I did it a little bit, not much. It’s kind of a new thing, something I’m still learning.”
Aaron Blackwell, DL, RS Sr.
The New Mexico grad transfer has already had some success as a pass rusher at the college level, with two sacks in 11 games in 2018, his last healthy season. (He missed almost the entire 2019 season with an ACL injury).
Listed at 6-foot-3, 293 pounds, Blackwell used the recovery time to completely transform his body. He says his lower half is now up to par with his ridiculously strong upper half. Blackwell can play inside or outside in a 3-4.
“I like the way he plays,” said Buh, who also coached Blackwell at New Mexico. “He’s going to be accountable, he’s going to be tough, understands what it takes, how to practice and lead by example. And he’s been comfortable with that and is gaining more confidence in his ability here at this level, and doing a great job and fitting in.”
Roy Lopez, DL, RS Sr.
Sumlin described Blackwell and Roy Lopez as “big guys who can hold a point.” Lopez, a fellow grad transfer from rival New Mexico State, has been even more productive than Blackwell.
The 6-foot-2, 312-pound Lopez has six sacks in his last 16 games dating back to 2018. He’s recovering from a leg injury that limited him to four games last season when he still managed to tally two sacks.
“Roy is an explosive guy that I believe people will see and notice,” Buh said.
Senior linebacker Anthony Pandy has.
“We got a lot of new size at D-line and someone that stood out to me right there is Roy Lopez,” he said. “Because he gets back there fast. He’s strong too, so he causes havoc on the O-line. I like that. They’re not crowding on me too fast, so very beneficial for the backers.”
At minimum, Blackwell and Lopez add veteran leadership to an otherwise young defense.
“Things are always built from the front to the back in and having those two veteran players that have been in some battles and some wars, certainly will be advantageous to us, not just from a planning standpoint, but from a leadership experience standpoint, and they’re already showing that on the field on a daily basis,” defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said.
Kwabena Watson, LB, RS Fr.
Watson appeared in three games as a freshman, mostly on special teams, and had one tackle. This year, he should get more chances to fly off the edge thanks to the switch to a 3-4 and, let’s face it, a lack of depth at linebacker.
Like Harris, the 6-foot-2 Watson has added a lot of strength since the end of last season, now weighing 230 pounds, 20 more than his game weight as a freshman.
Watson had 21 sacks in 34 games at Fresno’s Edison High School. He was a top-100 recruit in California and had offers from other Power 5 schools like Oregon, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and USC. (He was also one of the best wrestlers in the state.)
“Kwabena’s got talent,” Sumlin said. “He’s more of a natural pass rusher. He was probably undersized when he got here, in the 190s. But the guy only lost two wrestling matches in his history. You know what kind of hands he’s got, you know what kind of flexibility he has, you know what kind of bend he has, he shows that. He’s bigger now, he’s just got to understand what he’s doing in space. If we just tell him, go sic’em, he’s good. But if somebody moves around, and we spread out the sets, he gets out there in space he’s a little bit lost, because that’s not what he did in high school.”
Regen Terry, DL, Fr.
The Phoenix-area product was Arizona’s highest-ranked defensive signee in 2020, a huge in-state acquisition. The 6-foot-4, 289-pound defensive end had four sacks and 10 tackles for loss in his senior season and garnered a bunch of major-conference offers including USC, Nebraska and Oregon.
“Intriguing build with long arms and strong lower half,” read his 247Sports scouting report. Carries 230 pounds with ease and room to add bulk. Flexible edge rusher who thrives in one-on-one setting. Physical upside to grow into every-down lineman. Good first-step agility and ability to put blockers in tense situations quickly. Strong initial punch and ability to bend around the corner. Does well to wrap up in the backfield. Could improve pad level consistency and block-shedding technique.”
It’s difficult for freshmen to contribute immediately, but Terry seems to be on the right track.
“Regan Terry has been lights out,” Blackwell said. “He shows up every day with the right attitude. He’s always asking questions, learning. And he’s just showed up with great effort. He got great technique. I don’t know what high school he came from, but his coaches did a damn good job getting ready.”
Dion “Tank” Wilson Jr., DL, Fr.
Wilson wasn’t that far behind Terry in the recruiting rankings. The 6-foot-4, 276 pound defensive end had 10.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks as a senior at Perris, California’s Orange Park Vista High School.
“I think what you get here is a lot of upside and versatility,” says our Gabe Encinas. “Wilson is still raw but he shows you he has the athleticism and size that could turn him into a big time contributor in the future. I’ll be interested to see where the staff ultimately puts him. I feel like they can move him from defensive end all the way to nose guard with his current frame. It just depends on how they want his body to look.”
Anthony Pandy, LB, Sr.
Sumlin was looking forward to playing Pandy on the edge where he could showcase more of his pass-rushing talent, but those plans changed when Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II transferred. Pandy, Arizona’s third-leading tackler and sacker last season, is now slated to play Mike linebacker, a position that is more involved in run defense and pass coverage.
Trevon Mason (Sr.), Kyon Barrs (So.), and Myles Tapusoa (Sr.), DL
It’s unlikely that any of these three will put up big sack totals—they only combined for a pair of sacks last year, courtesy of Mason and Tapusoa—but they give Arizona something it hasn’t always had: sheer size. All three weigh in at 300+ pounds.
That didn’t translate to much statistically last season, but it was their first years in the program. Mason and Tapusoa battled conditioning issues as they made the transition from junior college while Barrs was only a year out of high school.
Another year in Arizona’s strength and conditioning program could serve them well and help Arizona collapse the pocket and free up its edge rushers.