FORT HUACHUCA — Arizona senior fullback Taimi Tutogi threw on a blue practice jersey, no number on the back, over his white game uniform and ran out to play defense.
Identifiable only by the cascading hair out of the back of his helmet, Tutogi ran a handful of plays on defense in Saturday’s scrimmage at Fort Huachuca, part of an ongoing experiment in which coach Rich Rodriguez is looking for playmaking help on that side of the ball.
With Tutogi and freshman tight end Keoni Bush-Loo, who also saw limited reps at defensive end Saturday night, Rodriguez specifically is looking for a pass-rush specialist on third-and-long.
“I’m definitely open to whatever the coaches want me to do,” Tutogi said. “I love playing defense. I know I can thrive there.”
Tutogi is no stranger to defensive end, having been a standout two-way player at Chula Vista (Calif.) High School. It’s just that when he arrived at Arizona, the Cats already had Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D’Aundre Reed — all future pros — at that position.
“When Coach (Mike) Stoops asked me to play fullback and I’d be right behind Chris Gronkowski, I was definitely open to that,” Tutogi said.
“I’ve really missed playing d-end. Playing offense these past three years has been a change. I’ve learned how to block, how to catch out of the backfield, but it’s fun to go back to your old roots.”
Tutogi (6-1, 260) has the kind of size and athleticism to make this experiment work, but it’s still too early to see how — or if — it will take hold for him and Bush-Loo.
Asked how useful it was to see that pair briefly on defense in the scrimmage, Rodriguez went into full sarcastic mode, bemoaning the state of the defense.
“There might be more guys on offense playing both ways,” Rodriguez said of borrowing guys from his no-huddle, up-tempo attack.
“Hell, we might have 10 guys playing both ways. If I do that I’m going to have to change the system offensively. We’ll be a huddle team and sing Kumbaya when we break the huddle, milk (the play clock) down to one second.
“We’ll sell a lot more concessions that way. Maybe our concessions folks will be happy. I don’t know. We’ll figure something out.”
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One of the individual highlights of the scrimmage was freshman running back J.T. Washington (which should come as no surprise if you read my Q&A with quarterback Matt Scott a day earlier).
Washington, at 5-7 and 156 pounds, is a true scatback — showing quick cuts and busting out multiple spin moves on the same run during the scrimmage.
More than one might have been too much for Rodriguez, who showed his knowledge of football video games with this comment:
“J.T. likes to push the circle button on that PlayStation and spin every time,” Rodriguez said.
“He’s got some natural good moves, but sometimes he just needs to stick his foot in the ground and go north and south. But he’s a fun kid, and he’s learning quickly. We have some pretty good backs, but I think he’s going to have a really good future here.”
Washington rushed four times for a team-high 31 yards in the scrimmage.
Washington, from Indialantic, Fla., had been committed to West Virginia last year but switched his commitment when his lead recruiter, defensive backs coach David Lockwood, was one of three Mountaineers assistants to jump to Arizona.
Washington received only modest recruiting rankings last year — two stars out of five from 247Sports and Rivals.com; three stars from Scout.com — and wasn’t one of the touted recruits entering camp.
The backfield is the one spot where Arizona feels good about its depth, so playing time might be limited this season. On the other hand, Rodriguez won’t pass up an opportunity to get another playmaker on the field.
“Oh, wow,” Scott said after the scrimmage. “That kid is going to be a good player for us. I’m excited to see him play.”
(Washington is No. 32 in the video below.)
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Rodriguez is mixing and matching at many positions, so don’t take this as an official depth chart, but here is how some of the first-team units looked Saturday night.
The offensive line, from left, was Mickey Baucus, Chris Putton, Kyle Quinn, Faitele Faafoi and Lene Maiava. The last two are redshirt freshmen. Fabbians Ebbele, the 2011 starting right tackle who was suspended for most of the offseason, worked with the second team.
Several defenders were out with injuries (lineman Dan Pettinato, linebacker Rob Hankins, cornerback Jonathan McKnight, to name a few). Here are the players who mostly worked with the first unit:
Sione Tuihalamaka, Jowyn Ward and Dominique Austin on the defensive line; Jake Fischer, Hank Hobson and freshman walk-on Shadow Williams at linebacker; Shaquille Richardson and Derrick Rainey at cornerback; Jared Tevis, Marquis Flowers and Mark Watley at safety.
John Bonano, who took over place-kicking duties at midseason, missed the first several practices because of a hamstring problem. He’s back, and he split place-kicking duties at the scrimmage with Youngstown State transfer Jake Smith.