State of the Roster: Defensive tackle

Is Arizona strong or weak at defensive tackle? Who could make an impact next season? Read on for those answers and more.

The defensive line was one of the most scrutinized positions for the Arizona football team in 2011. Struggling to get to the quarterback as well stopping the run, UA found life difficult in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball.

The new coaching staff hopes to dramatically improve on the unit's subpar performance last season. With a new defensive coordinator and new scheme in place, it's a fresh start for the Wildcats' defensive linemen. The defensive tackles, to be specific, were an inconsistent group, if not disappointing, a season ago.

Heading into the 2011 campaign, Arizona seemed to be set at the position with Justin Washington coming off a monster year as a freshman and Sione Tuihalamaka looking more than serviceable that very same season. However, their sophomore seasons didn't go as planned.

Washington was recovering from a stomach illness he caught over the previous offseason and was noticeably thinner than he was as a freshman. He finished his sophomore season with just 18 tackles – only two for loss – and zero sacks. Needless to say, his level of play from 2010 will have to return if he wants to earn a starting job in 2012.

Tuihalamaka didn't fair much better as a sophomore either. The lineman concluded the season with 19 total tackles and only one-and-a-half of those were for loss. Like Washington, Tuihalamaka came in with high expectations but ultimately fell short. He will certainly have to elevate his game this offseason, as he will have plenty of competition for a starting job.

Kirifi Taula will be one of those players in the mix. As a redshirt freshman, Taula showed potential with 21 tackles, four of which came from behind the line of scrimmage. The production wasn't substantially higher than Washington or Tuihalamaka, but Taula was a bit more impressive due to his lack of college football experience heading into the 2011 season.

Returning to action after missing a full season due to a knee injury will be Willie Mobley. The junior collected seven tackles as a backup in 2010 and will look to fight for a job this offseason. It's hard to tell where Mobley will be at the start of the regular season, but he should challenge for playing time.

Chris Merrill returns for his senior season in 2012. After playing sparingly under the previous regime, Merrill looks for one last crack at a starting job under Casteel. He is going to find the battle to be tough, but Merrill has the type of size that is usually found in Casteel's defense. He may only have 10 tackles for his college career, but Merrill could be a dark-horse candidate for a starting gig.

Returning for another season is Jowyn Ward. Looking for one last chance to make a significant impact at the college level, Ward is looking for any way to salvage what has been an injury plagued career during his time at Arizona. In 2011, Ward collected nine tackles and a sack and displayed flashes of what many UA fans expected of him when he arrived on campus in 2008. He certainly has talent to play the game, but whether he can beat out the competition around him is to be determined.

One returning player to keep an eye on is Aiulua Fanene. When Fanene arrived on campus he was one of the more raw football players on the roster, but his upside is immeasurable. Head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff have a history of working wonders with players that have untapped potential and if they can get the most out of Fanene, he could move up the depth charts quickly.

New Wildcat defensive tackle Dwight Melvin arrives on campus this summer and should earn a chance to play down the road, but is likely to crack the rotation right away and will probably redshirt.

There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the defensive tackle position. The one thing that the position does not lack is depth. Casteel and his defensive staff should have plenty to choose from when they look for starters at the beginning of the season. Generally Casteel is known to run a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, but with the inherited talent, he is likely to produce multiple schemes to fit the talent on the roster.

The new staff hasn't had much time to evaluate the roster. A position such as defensive tackle is going to take a while to sort out, as there aren't any players that stood out last season as definite starters heading into 2012. With a new scheme in place and everything up in the air at the position, it should be an intriguing development to observe over the next six months.

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