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Arizona football training camp: ‘Dancing bear’ Sio Nofoagatoto’a ready to create havoc on defensive interior

arizona-wildcats-football-preseason-training-camp-sio-nofoagatotoa-indiana-hoosiers-transfer-2023 Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The average weight of the players Arizona started at the two interior defensive line positions last season was 286.7 pounds. That would be slightly above the weight of the smallest candidate for the planned rotation at defensive and nose tackle this season.

Six of the top seven DT/NT contenders weigh in at over 300 pounds, topped by the 330 that Indiana transfer Sio Nofoagatoto’a carries on his 6-foot-3 frame. There’s also 6-6, 325-pound Georgia transfer Bill Norton, 6-5, 315-pound UCLA transfer Tyler Manoa and 6-5, 300-pound JUCO transfer Keanu Mailoto, all of whom were brought in this offseason to help shore up one of the Wildcats’ most glaring issues a year ago: run defense.

The UA ranked 124th out of 131 FBS teams in defending the run a year ago, allowing 209.1 yards per game and 5.59 yards per carry. That’s the worst YPC allowed in school history, topping the previous mark of 5.3 from back in 1958, and the worst per-game average since 1991.

Arizona’s run defense graded as the third-worst in the nation in 2022, per Pro Football Focus, at 40.8. The highest-graded defensive lineman the UA had against the run last fall was Kyon Barrs, whose 61.9 ranked 19th in the Pac-12 among players logging at least 20 percent of a team’s run defense snaps.

Nofoagatoto’a was brought to Tucson specifically for his ability to slow down the run. In four seasons at Indiana he played in 43 games, starting 13 including 11 a year ago, and nearly half his snaps were against the run. He graded out at 64.5 in 2022, logging 18 tackles with 2.5 for loss, but those numbers don’t show the true impact of an effective interior defender.

“Interior, we want to be big but we also want to be light on our feet, just being able to change things up,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “Coach wants us to be like dancing bears. We want to take up double teams, free up the backers, but also at the same time, just impact the game in any way possible. Just be smart enough to know when to make plays.”

A graduate transfer, Nofoagatoto’a entered the NCAA transfer portal in January but didn’t commit to Arizona until late April. He said he continued to train with teammates at Indiana, and when the Hoosiers had spring ball he did drills on his own.

The time off didn’t seem to slow him down, as Nofoagatoto’a has been a regular in the rotation that defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen and D-line coach Jason Kaufusi have planned for the front seven. Kaufusi said Nofoagatoto’a’s time in the Big Ten, which produced five 1,000-yard rushers (compared to three in the Pac-12), can only help Arizona.

“He brings that experience, that veteran leadership that we need,” Kaufusi said.

Recruited by Arizona out of high school, Nofoagatoto’a picked Indiana over the UA, ASU and Boston College among others. He went to Indiana with some teammates from Florida’s Clearwater Academy International in Florida, but as a native of American Samoa he still longed for a place with more of a Polynesian influence.

He’s found that with the Wildcats, who have roughly two dozen players on the 2023 roster who are of Polynesian descent.

“I think the team’s kind of adapted just that aloha mindset, just bringing everybody in and just loving everybody,” Nofoagatoto’a said.

Some recent Poly standouts in the Pac-12, former Washington defensive stars Danny Shelton and Vita Vea, are the inspiration for Nofoagatotoa’s choice to not wear gloves, a rarity for defensive linemen.