The Arizona Wildcats’ most pressing need is finding a pass rush.
UA had only 10 sacks last season, its average of 0.83 per game tied for the second-worst mark in the nation.
This is kind of a big deal. Of the 22 teams that were worst nationally in producing sacks last year, here is how many had a winning record: None.
So you can’t blame first-year coach Rich Rodriguez for trying anything and everything in fall camp, and that includes kicking the tires on a couple of offensive players to see if they have the needed burst off the edge to begin to harass opposing quarterbacks.
True freshman tight end Keoni Bush-Loo got some work before Monday’s practice with the defensive ends, as did senior fullback Taimi Tutogi.
“I really like him,” Rodriguez said of Bush-Loo, who played defensive end and tight end at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.
“I think we’re in a little battle between keeping him on offense at tight end or putting him at defensive end. He’s a guy who has some natural ability and he’s really, really aggressive. He’s a young man who may get an opportunity to play as a freshman.”
Bush-Loo (6-4, 229) was rated the 13th-best prospect from Hawaii by 247Sports.com.
Tutogi is an intriguing option. He is expected to get a decent workload on offense as a fullback — blocking, running, catching passes — so it’s not as if the coaches don’t like him there.
“He’s got a great skill set and he can do a lot of different things,” Rodriguez said of Tutogi at Pac-12 Media Day last month. “I can see Taimi making a name for himself.”
Maybe as a defensive end and as a two-way player?
Arizona briefly experimented with Tutogi at defensive end in the spring but Rodriguez said Monday night that it’s now “just about every day.”
“Taimi is a powerful guy,” Rodriguez said. “He has a lot of ability.”
File this away under “wait-and-see.” Rodriguez needs to see some practices in full pads and scrimmages before pegging guys into more definite roles.
None of the returning Arizona players had more than one sack last season. The Wildcats figure to create more pressure through their new 3-3-5 scheme that promises to be more aggressive and feature more blitzes … but nothing is better than just having a guy who can beat the offensive tackle and throw the quarterback for a loss.
There are some mix-and-match possibilities on the defensive line, so this is in the lightest pencil: The initial depth chart listed sophomore Dan Pettinato, sophomore Reggie Gilbert and senior Jowyn Ward at one end, with junior Justin Washington and sophomore Kirifi Taula contending at the other.
As for newcomers at defensive end, there are Parade All-American Kyle Kelley and Dwight Melvin.
“We’re looking for three of four other pass-rushers in addition to what we already have,” Rodriguez said of trying Bush-Loo and Tutogi. “Guys who can do it on third down or be kind of a specialist.”
Arizona has lost a member of Rodriguez’s first recruiting class as three-star defensive back Leo Thomas left the team during the first practice.
“Leo took the bus back to San Antonio, I guess,” Rodriguez said. “I think he was maybe a little homesick. He might not have been here a full 24 hours. I don’t know if he even got the chance to see his first monsoon.”
Thomas originally committed to the former Arizona coach staff last summer, de-committed when Stoops was fired at midseason, then re-committed to UA in January.
You can find former Rodriguez players talking about having a “hard edge” all the way back to his first season at West Virginia in 2001.
That is still one of his mottos, and he has it painted on the ground leading to the steps down onto the playing surface of the team’s new practice home — Kindall Field at Sancet Stadium.
“Coach Rod preaches hard edge,” said safeties coach Tony Gibson, in his 12th season as an assistant to Rodriguez.
“We want guys to go out and compete and play every snap like it’s their last one. You only get so many opportunities. You have to have a hard edge to play, and that’s how we’re building this thing.
“Come Sept. 1, every guy coming out of the tunnel better have a hard edge. It doesn’t guarantee you victory, but it gives you a chance.”
As he did in the spring, Arizona also a painted a thick blue arch at the entrance to the practice field. Rodriguez says it’s a reminder to the players that when they cross that line, it’s “all football.”