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Tim Kish’s tweaks on defense uncover a promising defensive end

Kirifi Taula

Kirifi Taula, working here in the spring game, might have a home at defensive end. Photo by David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic

Arizona Wildcats interim head coach Tim Kish has put his stamp on the defense in only three games.

His latest change is to go big at defensive end.

Redshirt freshmen Kirifi Taula (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) and Dan Pettinato (6-4, 260) started last week against Utah, replacing seniors C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman.

Those two — who are each 6-2, 245 — have not provided the kind of pass rush Arizona had hoped for from someone their size.

Parish has one sack since the season-opener vs. NAU. Usman has none since then.

“I liked it a lot,” Kish said of last week’s bigger look at defensive end.

“It’s the right way to go. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow with that.”

Taula, who had previously been a defensive tackle, had five tackles, including one for loss last week. Pettinato had two tackles.

This will clearly be a position of need in recruiting, but Taula could potentially be a cornerstone at the position for the new head coach.

“Kirifi played a heck of a game,” Kish said. “If he continues in that progression, we’ll be in good shape.

“He’s really just finally got a knack for how to strike and use his legs. I don’t know if just moving him outside helped him with that or what, but he’s a natural there.”

It’s not as if the concept of using Taula at end was a new one to Arizona, but former head coach Mike Stoops, for whatever reason, didn’t make the switch during the first half of the season.

“That big sucker can play, but they won’t let me (have him),” defensive ends coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said of Taula early in fall camp. “In spring, he jumped out one time to end and played pass rush and we went, ‘Wow.’”

Kish had the title of defensive coordinator this season (and still does), but the defense really belonged to Stoops, who, naturally, could do as he saw fit on that side of the ball.

But Kish started tweaking things after Stoops was fired last month.

Kish put in a double-eagle flex scheme that harkened back to the Arizona’s Desert Swarm days. The Wildcats have used that at times to try to be stronger against the run.

Kish inserted true freshman Tramayne Bondurant, who had been impressive in practice (mostly on the scout team), into the lineup, quickly discovering a playmaker. Kish has been more aggressive in terms of trying to pressure the quarterback.

It hasn’t been enough to overcome all of Arizona’s defensive deficiencies, although the late-season development of Bondurant and Taula are encouraging for a unit that will get back a quartet of players from injuries next season (cornerback Jonathan McKnight, safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer and backup defensive back Willie Mobley), while hoping for a full season of health from defensive tackle Justin Washington.

The results from three games under Kish:

–Arizona held UCLA to 323 yards, the Bruins’ second-lowest total of the season.

–Arizona gave up 489 yards to Washington — about 77 above the Huskies’ season average, as running back Chris Polk had a huge game.

–Arizona gave up just 332 yards to Utah, which was actually slightly above the season average for the Utes, who took advantage of UA’s injuries at cornerback to hit two long scoring plays.

On Saturday, the Cats play at Colorado, which has the worst scoring offense in the league, averaging 18.6 points. But the Buffs got back two playmakers from injury last week — sophomore receiver Paul Richardson and senior running back Rodney Stewart.

Richardson (6-1, 175) is the cousin of Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson, who could return from an ankle injury this week. Paul Richardson had 11 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns vs. Cal early this season.

“He’s electric,” Arizona secondary coach Ryan Walters said. “He kind of reminds me of DeSean Jackson when he was in college.”

Stewart (5-6, 175) isn’t big but he has been capable of rushing 30-plus times a game. He ran for 1,318 yards last season, and went for 88 yards on 21 carries vs. USC last week as he returned from injury. Stewart is also the team’s leading receiver with 34 catches.

“Quick to the perimeter,” Kish said of Stewart. “He’s fast.”

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