Spring ball is steadily approaching and that's when the Arizona football squad will step back on to the practice field and regroup in preparation of the 2011 football season. Like every offseason, there are plenty of wrinkles to iron out and spring is the first step in getting everything in line for the fall.
In our last installment, we took a look at the Wildcats' defensive end situation and this round will dissect the men that line up inside the ends – the defensive tackles.
Unlike end, UA knows what it's working with at the tackle position. The loss of Lolomana Mikaele should hurt in terms of experience, but I would expect very little drop-off – if any at all – in terms of production.
Sophomore Justin Washington is one starter inside as he returns for his second year of duty. As a redshirt freshman, Washington compiled 46 tackles (33 solo), six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Washington was one of the biggest surprises of last year's squad. He didn't hold a starting position until late in fall camp and once he stepped on the field, the only thing that took him off was injury.
The staff is very high on Washington's future and for good reason. His combination of strength and athleticism will work as an advantage as he continues to grow as a player. With the lack of experience at defensive end, Washington could be one of the linemen asked to step up as not only a performer, but as a leader of the entire defensive line as well.
Assuming Sione Tuihalamaka doesn't move to defensive end, the soon-to-be-sophomore could start alongside Washington. Tuihalamaka was a starter for much of fall camp before being passed up by Washington right before the season started. That wasn't due to anything Tuihalamaka did wrong, nor did he perform poorly, but with Washington's growth and the fact Mikaele was a productive senior starter, Tuihalamaka was utilized off the bench.
The redshirt freshman saw time as a starter when Washington went down and he showed plenty of potential. Throughout the course of the whole season, Tuihalamaka totaled 23 tackles – three for loss – and 1.5 sacks. He has plenty of game experience and enough upside to be even more productive as a sophomore.
Willie Mobley is another player to watch. His first season as a Wildcat was a solid one. As a backup, Mobley compiled seven tackles – 1.5 for loss – and .5 sacks. He saw the field in spot situations, but was serviceable when he played. Mobley is athletic for his size and can provide pressure to the opposing backfield. At the very least, he will see the field as a backup.
Chris Merrill will also provide some depth if he doesn't happen to win a starting job. Merrill doesn't have much game experience (only eight games and two tackles for his college career) but he has a big body and should be utilized as a situational run-stopper at the very least.
Both Dominque Austin and Jowyn Ward are back for 2011. Ward didn't play last year and Austin only recorded one tackle in 10 appearances. Both players were considered solid prospects a couple of seasons ago but neither has really made much of an impact yet. There is a chance for each player to redeem himself, but there will be much more competition at tackle this time around.
There is plenty of young talent at defensive tackle to pay attention to as well. There is 6-foot-3, 280-pound Kirifi Taula was a highly recruited by several schools in the Pac-10 before choosing to come to Arizona. His big frame could be essential to stopping the run.
Then there is also 6-foot-4, 280 pound Aiulua Fanene. Most will remember Fanene as one of the players featured in the 60 Minutes special on football players from Samoa last year. Fanene is viewed as a very raw player with an extremely high ceiling, but not much is truly known about his ability at the college level at this point.
Both Fanene and Taula have a chance to make an impact, but will have to earn it in both spring and fall camp.
There is also the arrival of Sani Fuiamaono, a player that was scheduled to show up with the rest of the 2010 class before the start of last season. The former high school wrestler tore his bicep muscle before the campaign, allowing Arizona to utilize a grey-shirt on him so the Wildcats could fill the spot left by Fuiamaono in the 2010 class.
Like Fanene and Taula, Fuiamaono will have to put in a lot of work to see the field in his first year on campus, but the coaching staff is very high on his future.
Defensive tackle is one position on defense where Arizona seems to be in good shape. While there are certainly question marks at various positions on the defensive side of the ball, having a solid core of players to choose from in the middle of the defensive line is definitely something to be confident with.
Mike Stoops' defenses tend to adapt and new players step into roles left by veterans that have moved on from college football. It wouldn't be surprising to see the defensive tackle position to be the staple of the entire defense in 2011.
Evaluating the Roster: Defensive tackle
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