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Arizona football: A look at the Wildcats’ defensive linemen entering training camp

6th in a series

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Arizona will begin preseason training camp on Wednesday, Aug. 2, a month of workouts and practices to get the Wildcats prepared for the 2023 season that opens Sept. 3 against NAU.

To get you primed for camp, we’re breaking down each position group on the roster. Today we focus on the defensive linemen.

Players on roster: 22 (17 scholarship, 5 walk-on)

Projected starters: DE Taylor Upshaw (Sr.), DT Bill Norton (Jr.), NG Sio Nofoagatoto’a (Sr.), Edge Orin Patu (Jr.)

Almost all of Arizona’s NCAA transfer portal additions were on defense, and the vast majority were brought in to overhaul a defensive line that needed a redo. The Wildcats were 124th out of 131 FBS teams in 2022 in defending the run, giving up 300-plus rushing yards in three different games, while its 54 tackles for loss were tied for the fewest in a non-COVID season in at least 15 years.

Our pre-camp projection has all four starting spots going to newcomers, each of whom bring multiple years of experience at other power-conference schools.

Upshaw played 37 games in four seasons at Michigan, and is expected to be in the role that USC transfer Hunter Echols had a year ago. He had transferred to Colorado for the spring but then re-entered the portal, and Arizona gets a veteran who has played more than 700 defensive snaps in his career.

Norton, a member of Georgia’s back-to-back national championship teams, played sparingly for the Bulldogs but was a 4-star prospect in the 2019 recruiting class who could thrive in a bigger role.

Nofoagatoto’a started 11 games at Indiana a year ago and only had one missed tackle on 169 run defense snaps. At 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds he’ll take up a lot of space in the middle, where Arizona was often gashed on the ground a year ago.

And Patu comes in from Cal, where he was mostly used on third downs and in obvious passing situations and will fill the KAT spot in Johnny Nansen’s defense. One of Patu’s most notable plays a year ago was a strip sack of UA quarterback Jayden de Laura in the Golden Bears’ win over the Wildcats in the Pac-12 opener.

Top backups: Tyler Manoa (Sr.), Tia Savea (Jr.), Russell Davis II (So.), Jacob Kongaika (So.), Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei (So.), Isaiah Ward (R-Fr.)

Nansen said going into his first season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator that he likes to play a lot of guys on the defensive line, but early on that wasn’t the case. Not until he and Jedd Fisch committed to playing more of its younger frontline guys did that change, and the performance in the trenches improved.

Uiagalelei started the final five games of 2022, and his 71.6 tackling grade (per PFF) was third-best among players with at least 200 snaps. Kongaika’s tackling grade was even better, at 77.4, and Ward registered the team’s fourth-best run defense grade in his 33 snaps over the final three games of 2022.

But the most promising member of that newcomer group is Davis, who played 31 snaps in the season opener has great instincts. He just needs to get bigger—he’s still listed at 210—but despite the lack of size he can be a real force off the edge.

Throw in Manoa and Savea, both of whom played for Nansen at UCLA, and Arizona should easily be able to rotate double figures on the line.

Also expected to contribute: Keanu Mailoto (So.), Nick Fernandez (Fr.), Tylen Gonzalez (Fr.)

The Wildcats signed six defensive linemen in the 2023 recruiting class, and with the depth they’ve accumulated none of them are needed to play a big role right away. But so many of the top guys are only likely to be around for one season, so developing some with playing time here and there is imperative.

Mailoto is a junior college transfer, Fernandez was a two-way star from San Pedro, Calif. and Gonzalez comes from Carlsbad, NM. Each has the potential to be a diamond-in-the-rough kind of addition like linebacker Jacob Manu a year ago.

Next up: Linebackers