The Arizona Wildcats haven't had enough good defensive linemen for, oh, about a decade.
Arizona's 2010 team featured three future pros at defensive end -- Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed -- one season after it sent defensive tackle Earl Mitchell into the NFL. Brooks Reed and Big Earl are still playing in the NFL.
Since then ...
Well, at least it was nice to see P.J. Johnson slide into the middle of the seventh round last season, ending a seven-year drought of Arizona failing to produce a draft pick along the defensive line.
Worse: The Cats haven't produced a first- or second-team all-conference defensive lineman since 2010, when Brooks Reed was first team and Elmore second team.
As Rich Rodriguez joked multiple times after he arrived for the 2012 season, talking about the defensive front: "We make up for our lack of size with our lack of speed."
His recruiting efforts didn't do much to solve the size/speed dilemma.
Nobody needs to be told twice about how lack of talent on the defensive line is a major problem, but here is a rudimentary stat that tells UA's sad tale in broad strokes: Rushing defense. Here is how the Cats have ranked nationally in the past eight seasons:
2018 -- 64th
2017 -- 85th
2016 -- 83rd
2015 -- 98th
2014 -- 68th
2013 -- 69th
2012 -- 85th
2011 -- 67th
For further context, think of it this way: Arizona only once has been in the top half of the nation in rushing defense in the last eight years -- that coming last season. Just barely. Arizona was 64th out of 129 teams. Hey, at least that's progress, yes?
After losing the versatile Johnson and steady 300-pounder Dereck Boles from last year's front, the defensive line was easily seen as one of the team's biggest potential weaknesses heading into 2019.
But will it be?
Second-year coach Kevin Sumlin fortified the interior with junior college transfers Myles Tapusoa and Trevon Mason -- both listed as starters from Saturday's opener at Hawaii -- sophomore end Jalen Harris looks like a future star and there appear to be enough useful bodies for what defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei calls "a solid three units."
First, the scheme. Arizona will run a four-man base instead of the three-man front that was favored by RichRod and carried over by Sumlin. So, the "stud" outside linebackers such as Harris, Kylan Wilborn and Lee Anderson III are now in Uiagalelei's meeting room.
To be clear, UA's problems have had more to do with personnel than scheme.
As for that personnel ...
Senior Finton Connolly is 300-plus pounds and has earned the trust of the coaches. Justin Belknap is a former starting end who missed the final 10 games of last season due to a broken foot. Redshirt freshman Mykee Irving is another big body -- listed at 320 pounds, but slimmer and in better shape than last season.
Junior J.B. Brown should be key, able to play outside or inside (in a speedier pass-rushing package).
"Extremely valuable," Uiagalelei said of Brown. "He's got a lot of experience. Playing inside in the spring helped him get a better aspect in terms of the entire D-line. Now, he's back outside and he understands his help and how to set the front.
"But his leadership skills and his understanding of what we want from the D-line, is invaluable."
Tapusoa arrived for spring camp and Mason didn't hit campus until right before fall camp and has been making up ground.
"They're coming along just fine right now," Uiagalelei said last week. "Both of those guys came in knowing that endurance and conditioning was going to be a concern. ... But they're doing a good job of understanding of what we want from them and the job that they have to get done. I'm really impressed with where they are at right now."
Let's just say there are some possibilities here. The Cats have guys; now, they just need to be good enough.
"This year, we've got a great rotation," Uiagalelei said. "The first two groups, I mean there's no fall-off. Those guys are competing. Going into the third group, they're ready to roll."
* * *
Justin Belknap interview: