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Edge position key to Arizona football’s defensive overhaul

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-practice-kaufusi-orin-patu-sterling-lane-russell-davis-deuce-2023 Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s entire defense is going through an overhaul this offseason, with Jedd Fisch saying before spring practice began that there would be “nonstop competition” for nearly every starting spot. It’s a guarantee there will be new starters at both edge positions, as Hunter Echols and Jalen Harris are both finally out of eligibility after six years apiece in college.

The top candidates for those spots in 2023 are a pair of underclassmen who both saw action as true freshmen—one significantly more than the other—and one of Arizona’s key transfer portal additions.

Four practices into the spring, defensive assistant Jason Kaufusi isn’t ready to rank senior Orin Patu and sophomores Russell Davis II and Sterling Lane II.

“We’re just waiting to kind of see what they can continue to do,” Kaufusi said. “Consistency is going to be the biggest thing for us.”

Patu, a transfer from Cal, comes to the UA with 24 games of experience. That includes the Golden Bears’ win over Arizona in Berkeley last year, a game that turned on Patu getting a strip sack of UA quarterback Jayden de Laura.

He only had 10 snaps that game, and 161 for all of 2022, but figures to see much more action in defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s rotation up front and is probably the favorite for the KAT position that Echols started at last season.

“I’m fitting in great,” Patu said. “This is the spot for me.”

Davis and Lane, who both go by the nickname “Deuce,” saw 222 and 50 defensive snaps last year, respectively, with the former playing in every game. Davis played 31 snaps in the season opener at San Diego State, an indication of how quickly he picked up the scheme.

“A lot of it, I think, was just me not overthinking and just kind of going out there and playing the game,” said Davis, who had 12 tackles (two for loss) last year. “A lot of it is knowing what you’re good at.”

Lane didn’t see significant action until November but graded well in tackling in games at Utah and UCLA. He said he was taking things slow at first to make sure he understood his role.

“Some people could just go in and jump right into it,” Lane said. “For me it was about watching the game and seeing how fast it was, that really helped me. As long as learn it, that’s the best thing. You’re not gonna pick up everything right away.”

Kaufusi, who handles edge rushers and outside linebackers, said the edge spot is one that has to both rush the passer and be able to defend against the run. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in run defense in 2022 and their 16 sacks were second-to-last in the league and fewest for the program in a non-COVID year since 2013.

“Getting to the quarterback, it’s no different than it is at the next level,” Kaufusi said. “Those guys who can get to the quarterback can disrupt the game. Can you get the quarterback out of rhythm? They pay those guys a lot of money.”