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Two-togi: Arizona senior embraces dual role as fullback/defensive end

Breaking tackles or making tackles, Taimi Tutogi will see a lot of playing time for Arizona this season. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats’ Taimi Tutogi pounced on an opponent’s fumble one play and had an illegal block penalty that negated a touchdown on the next play.

Such an unusual sequence is life for Arizona’s two-way player.

The experiment has taken hold.

Tutogi is still UA’s man when it comes to needing a big running back/lead blocker, and first-year coach Rich Rodriguez has found that Tutogi can do more. The senior is the team’s best option for a third-down, pass-rushing defensive end.

Tutogi, a 6-1, 260-pound senior, played about 20 plays on defense last week against Toledo.

“Knowing my job is just coming off the edge and trying to kill the quarterback, that’s always fun,” Tutogi said.

“The highlight for me was just getting off the ball, rushing the edge and getting the quarterback uncomfortable on that last fourth down in overtime. I knew I had to put some pressure on him. Just had to make it happen and make him get the ball out.”

Tutogi, having beaten the right tackle to the outside, was bearing down on quarterback Austin Dantin, who threw incomplete into the end zone on fourth-and-20 from the 23. The Wildcats won 24-17.

“He made a nice impact,” Rodriguez said.

“He’s one of our better pass rushers. Twenty to 25 snaps is probably a good number for him defensively. He’s got a good motor and is one of our better pass rushers.”

Tutogi isn’t a complete novice at the position. He played defensive end at Chula Vista (Calif.) High School, and he could easily have ended up at that spot at Arizona, expect for the fact that Arizona at the time was stacked with future pros — Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D’Aundre Reed.

Former head coach Mike Stoops put Tutogi on offense, where he could get on the field right away as a true freshman.

Three years later, Tutogi’s immediate impact on defense can’t be seen in the stats — his contribution against Toledo was the fumble recovery — but he was active and delivered pressure on occasion. “High-motor” is the common way to describe Tutogi.

He went full speed while mixing in 40-some plays on offense. He only carried the ball once, for a loss of 1, and otherwise helped clear space for Ka’Deem Carey or Daniel Jenkins.

“The offense we run is demanding, and I was pretty tired, but that’s why we practice hard during the week and go so hard over the summer,” Tutogi said.

“It wasn’t as hard as practice, surprisingly. The coaches told me all week that the games would be a lot easier than practice, and surprisingly it was. I wasn’t too tired. I still went both ways and I did it 100 percent and comfortably.”

On a more perfect team, Rodriguez wouldn’t have to play Tutogi both ways. But UA is still searching for that pass-rushing end after the trio of Reed, Elmore and Reed left following the 2010 season.

Rodriguez gave Tutogi a look in one-on-one pass-rushing drills in the spring and gave him an extended audition at end in fall camp. He’s still on offense for the majority of practice, but will receive some individual instruction from defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich on the side.

At the end of the week, Tutogi has to take the tests on the game plan for offense and defense.

“It’s a fair amount,” he said of his football homework, “but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

So, Tutogi will continue to tinker on defense, becoming a rare, legit two-way payer. The most notable one recently was Stanford’s Owen Marecic, who started at fullback and linebacker in 2010.

His future figures to be on offense, though.

“There’s no question, he’s a guy the NFL will look at,” Rodriguez said.

“He has to have a good year, and they want to see it on tape, but he’s got the size, the strength, he’s got the ball skills, he has good feet. He’s a guy that they have been on campus looking at. And they should.

“I hope he has a great year, and he’s off to a good start.”

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