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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona football’s defensive line isn’t big; that’s a problem

Rebecca Noble / The Daily Wildca
Arizona defensive lineman Sani Fuimaono tackles a BYU receiver on Saturday, Sept. 3 at the Cactus Kickoff Classic in the University of Phoenix Stadium.

There’s no question that the size of Arizona’s defensive linemen is a concern moving forward, and for a team that is gradually improving on defense, the men in the trenches are only getting smaller—nay worse. 

Arizona football Head Coach Rich Rodriguez can’t help how the defensive line looks now—he has to use the deck of cards that were dealt to him over the years of recruiting. The Wildcats were so accustomed to the 3-3-5 defense that the main emphasis was always recruiting players that can defend the pass. 

Rodriguez should focus on defensive backs and linebackers, because in a pass-happy Pac-12 Conference, players equipped with athleticism and speed to defend the pass are more likely to put their teams in a better position to win. 

When the defense took a huge step backward last season, Rodriguez cut ties with his long-time friend and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to beef up the defense by hiring Marcel Yates from Boise State. He knew that his defense was unlike the potato-fed defensive linemen in Idaho, so he added stunts and early ball movement to keep the offensive line on their toes, regardless of their size. 

“I think they’ve been great,” Arizona linebacker Michael Barton said. “…All those guys [on defense] have been doing a really good job of moving so that we’re able to run free and fill the lanes.”

Related: Yates helps Wildcats on and off field

According to linebacker Jake Matthews, one of the best traits about the defensive linemen is their ability to communicate with the linebackers so the defense is flowing at a steady rate. 

“They listen to us too when we tell them which way to go,” Matthews said. “It helps us to determine their gap and make fits off ‘em.”

Nothing seems to add up, because the Wildcats are tied for 70th place in the country in sacks with seven on the season and tied with Charlotte for 63rd place in rushing defense.

To Barton and Matthews’ credit, they can’t bad mouth their own teammates in a press conference and say, “Oh, the defensive line is terrible because they’re so small and struggle getting off blocks.” 

Going up against teams with smaller defensive linemen can be easier because the weight and the differential between strength at a low leverage point knocks linebackers off their tracks, so it’s difficult to make plays.

The biggest issue with Arizona’s defensive line is that they’re not flying at linebacker speed even though they’re built similar to them. The average weight of the starting defensive linemen for Arizona is 255 pounds while players like Barton weigh 237 pounds and Cody Ippolito weighs in at 248 pounds. As you can see, there isn’t an immense drop off. 

With the defensive linemen gradually becoming smaller, maybe Rodriguez should reconsider opening that lone-star state pipeline to append more girth up front, Mike Stoops style.

“Everything is bigger in Texas. That’s what they say,” according to Rodriguez.

In Stoop’s best season in Tucson, 2009, the Wildcats were No. 20 in college football and third in the Pac-12 in total sacks with 34 on the season.Houston native Earl Mitchell and DeSoto, Texas native Donald Horton—who combined for 9.5 sacks—led the way for the Arizona defense. Both of them were defensive tackles, too, so at least one of them is getting double-teamed if there isn’t a blitz. 

Related: Yates and Williams looking to make mark in recruiting

Neither of them was tall, as Mitchell was 6-foot-2 while Horton was just 6-foot, but both of them weighed 285.5 pounds. Rodriguez said it’s not about the state, it’s about fitting into the scheme. Perhaps this is the reason why the defensive line has amassed three sacks total so far this young season.

“We’ll recruit them from anywhere if they’re the right fit for Arizona,” Rodriguez said.

In recent years, Rodriguez has sprinkled in Texas athletes, but none on the defensive line are from the lone-star state.  

“We’ve kind of branched out a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “Our main areas are obviously still Arizona, Southern California and some of the auxiliary areas there, but I only got nine assistant coaches so we can’t cover the areas as thick as we love them.”

The defense will always have the tag “versatile” and can adapt to any offense, but if the quarterback is sitting in the pocket for more than three seconds or the running back picks up an easy three-yards, then there’s an issue up front that must be fixed. And since Arizona cut off the pipeline to Texas, maybe Rodriguez can focus solely on defensive linemen with size in the lone star state. 

After all, everything IS bigger in Texas. 

Follow Justin Spears on Twitter.

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