One of the core adjustments that the Wildcats had to learn was using just three defensive linemen instead of the four that were being used with the previous defensive scheme. Having less personnel on the line means that the players have to be faster and stronger, making up for the lack of another lineman.
The Wildcats failed to do that this season, giving up substantial numbers on defense. Opposing teams rushed for 2,680 yards against Arizona in thirteen games, for a total of 206.2 yards per game. That number was second worst in the Pac-12, ahead of just Colorado, a team that won just a single game all season.
In addition, the Arizona defense accumulated just sixteen sacks over the course of the season, which was the worst total in the Pac-12. However, the defensive line was even worse than those sixteen sacks make it seem as linebacker Marquis Flowers had 5.5 of them. Defensive linemen only had 6.5 sacks out of the sixteen, but it is made up for by the fact that the three linemen create holes so the linebackers can get into the backfield.
Dan Pettinato led the defensive line in tackles and his 34 total tackles were just good enough for eleventh best on the team. That is in addition to the fact that he didn't even play in the first two games of the season.
Junior defensive tackle Sione Tuihalamaka was right behind Pettinato with 29 tackles, but also added half a sack. He is a player that grew as the season progressed, but suffered a knee injury against Nevada in the bowl game. The injury may set back some of his progress throughout the spring.
After being suspended for the first five games of the season, Justin Washington had a somewhat productive season. He found his way into the starting lineup three times, playing in all eight games after his suspension. Washington had a sack and finished the season with eighteen tackles. After an impressive freshman showing, Washington may be looking for something to prove after seemingly regressing this past year.
One of the brightest spots on the defensive line early in the season was Dominique Austin. The senior started the first five games of the year and had fourteen tackles. However, Austin injured his foot and was lost for what was thought to be the remainder of the season. He returned to play in the New Mexico Bowl, but failed to record any statistics.
An offensive player also helped out the Wildcats. Taimi Tutogi was converted from a full-time fullback to splitting time between his previous position and defensive end. He was brought in mostly on third downs, but helped get some extra pressure on opposing quarterbacks at times.
Who's back: Reggie Gilbert (junior), Tevin Hood (senior), Kyle Kelley (freshman), Dwight Melvin (freshman), Dan Pettinato (junior), Kirifi Taula (junior), Sione Tuihalamaka (senior), Justin Washington (senior)
Outlook: With plenty of productivity returning on the defensive front, it is hard to see the defensive line being as bad as it was this season. There were times during the season that opposing quarterbacks looked completely comfortable in the pocket and seemed to have full minutes to get passes off.
In addition to that, Arizona gave up rushing yards by the truckload. Running backs were able to find holes and get into the second level with ease at times.
The good news is that the returning players will have had a year of experience under their belt and won't be adjusting to a new scheme. Players will continue to get stronger and faster, improving on the growth that they have already shown throughout the season.
Reggie Gilbert is a player that can have a breakout season for the Wildcats in 2013. As a sophomore this past year, he saw action in eleven games, starting eight of them. He recorded just nineteen tackles, but did have three and a half sacks, as well as two fumble recoveries. The junior should be even better next year with another year of experience under his belt.
Even with the returning starters, the Wildcats will have additional help. Kyle Kelley and Dwight Melvin were two freshmen that redshirted and have looked impressive in practice. The former was projected to see considerable playing time in his first year, but instead sat out in order to get better
Arizona will also have more help coming in next fall. Luca Bruno, Tony Mekari, Calvin Allen, and Jack Banda are all expected to sign with the Wildcats in the spring and will be involved heavily in fall camp.
The coaches were hesitant to use any of the freshmen on the defensive line, but Bruno is a talented player who could easily find himself some playing time. He is a strong, physical player who had offers from numerous other schools, including California, Oregon State, and Cincinnati.
Don't sleep on the other freshmen though. This is the first full class that Head Coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff have evaluated and recruited. The four signees are exactly what they are looking for and are suited for a 3-3-5 defense. If they can come to fall practices and perform early, they could earn some playing time.
It looks as if the only direction for the defensive line to go is up. It is still a long way away from being great, but the defense as a whole will have to improve in several small steps. The defensive front seems to be taking the right path.