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The most important Wildcat in the next two games? Maybe not who you think

Star Lotulelei

This is what awaits Arizona center Kyle Quinn on Saturday night. Photo by Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Quarterback Matt Scott should be back from a concussion. Running back Ka’Deem Carey is making a run at the national rushing title. Austin Hill is considered one of the top 10 receivers in the nation.

That’s all nice.

But you can make the case that the most important player on the Arizona Wildcats offense in the next two games is senior center Kyle Quinn.

Certainly, no one will have more demanding assignments.

Quinn has to take on Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound slice of the Wasatch Mountains, on Saturday and then turn around and try to handle Arizona State’s Will Sutton six days later in Tucson.

Sutton is light, quick and incredibly productive for an interior lineman, with 10.5 sacks among his 17 tackles for loss, despite missing nearly two full games because of a knee injury.

But one game at a time. Saturday, it’s Lotulelei, potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

“Everybody knows who he is, so it’s a great challenge for me and this offensive line,” Quinn said. “Everybody is excited. We’ve got to go out there and take it to him.”

All those big lanes on the inside zone runs that Carey saw last week en route to 366 rushing yards? Lotulelei could be parked right in the middle of those lanes, stopping all traffic.

Lotulelei has 33 tackles, including nine for loss and four sacks — as well as three forced fumbles. Numbers rarely tell the story for a defensive lineman, though. Guys like Lotulelei more commonly exist on ruthless SEC defenses.

Draft analyst Rob Rang further studied Lotulelei during last week’s game at Washington and wrote this as part of a larger column on CBSSports.com:

Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei didn’t have a big statistical night against the University of Washington but that’s largely because the Huskies double-teamed him most of the game. When he was assigned just one blocker, Lotulelei demonstrated the quick hands and feet that belie his 6-3, 320 pound frame.

Lotulelei, the reigning Morris Trophy winner, has been my top-rated prospect much of the year. I’ll be the first to admit that the defensive tackle hasn’t been as consistent as I would like but he clearly possesses some special attributes. As mentioned, he’s quick. He’s also quite strong, showing the heavy hands and upper body strength to rip violently free from blocks. He used his great strength to simply bull rush through Washington left guard Dexter Charles for a sack late in the third quarter with the Huskies nursing a 21-15 lead.

While his physical traits cannot be ignored, Lotulelei’s mental mistake midway through the fourth quarter led to the Huskies pulling away. The senior defensive tackle was caught offsides to extend a Washington drive — the second time Lotulelei was penalized for guessing the snap count rather than watching the ball.

Teams won’t forget Lotulelei’s lack of discipline but ultimately it will be his physical traits that will prove the more lasting impression. Lotulelei’s size, strength and athleticism make him scheme-versatile and quite likely a top five pick.

Lotulelei leads a Utah defense that is third in the conference and 18th nationally against the run, allowing 110.6 yards per game.

“We have not gotten a lot of push at the line of scrimmage this year, so I wouldn’t expect to do it against Star and their front,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “They are bigger and stronger than our previous opponents. The key for us is to have great leverage.”

Quinn said he’s eager for the challenge. How he plays in the next two games and neutralizes (or not) the opposition’s best defender will have a huge impact on the offense’s effectiveness. What a way to wind down a career for the two-year starter.

“It’s a huge opportunity, not only for me but this entire group,” he said of facing Lotulelei.

“We’re competitors, and you want to compete against the best every week. He’s a great player. He’s going to go on to great things. …

“He doesn’t have many weaknesses. The only thing you’ve got to do is go out there and wear him down. Like Coach Rod says, it’s like taking on an elephant. And how do you eat an elephant. One bite at a time? So that’s what we got to do.”

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