TUCSON, Ariz. – This is the state of Arizona’s defense: Senior running back Taimi Tutogi may be the team’s best hope on the defensive line.
Who knows – maybe on the defense, period.
It’s that kind of reality for first-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who announced on Tuesday night that potential starting defensive lineman Justin Washington had been suspended for team violations.
Washington or no Washington, Rodriguez has had to adjust on the fly the last two to three weeks as he continues to tweak his defense. He has his offense to thank, as he’s borrowed – or moved – three key players.
Freshman Keoni Bush-Loo has been moved from tight end to defensive end.
Senior running back Greg Nwoko is seeing time at linebacker.
And Tutogi will play equal parts offense and defense.
“Better to hit than be hit,’’ Tutogi said, smiling.
Just last week, Rodriguez said Tutogi might be the team’s best pass rusher.
Let’s also not forget that last year, the Wildcats had a total of six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. For many teams that’s two games worth.
No need to explain the changes.
“It’s out of necessity,’’ Rodriguez said. “In the future we won’t be at this (level) again. As far as defensively, it’ll take recruiting to fix that. ‘’
Until then, it’s get in where you fit in for some Wildcats.
“We’ve got a lot of unselfish guys,’’ Rodriguez said. “That’s the good part of it.’’
It’s not clear how much Nwoko will play. He’s been hurt most of the recent practices with a hip injury. Bush-Loo’s athletic ability will help, but he’s young with much to learn. As for Tutogi, it looks as if he could play as many as 60 plays, split evenly between offense and defense.
“He’s going to have to be in shape,’’ Rodriguez quipped.
He is. And he’s ready for whatever is needed. Or so he says.
“I’m definitely open to it,’’ he said.
In fact, he feels like he’s back home at the defensive end position. It was the position he was recruited at by Mike Stoops’ staff. But because he had so much talent in front of him – Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D’Aundre Reed – he was moved.
“In the (last) scrimmage it was overwhelming the plays I got with the defense,’’ he said, smiling. “I got more defense reps than on offense. I had fun over there.”
Now, it’s about being effective. He did learn from watching his predecessors. And, he has some pretty good athletic ability.
“I think I can get off the end and I’m fast,’’ he said. “I use my athletic ability that I have as a running back.’’
His switch doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Brooks Reed, now with the Houston Texans, told him he’d likely be back at his more natural position at some point.
“I really didn’t believe it, but I guess it’s happening,’’ he said. “My senior year I get to do it. These coaches say I could possibly make it at the next level. I’m excited.’’
While Tutogi might flourish, Nwoko is still feeling his way around. He didn’t see the switch coming, but when Rodriguez told him about it “I was was pretty excited,’’ he said.
He played linebacker a little in high school and now is learning the position all over again. But his enthusiasm to help is there. He did say his time on the offensive end has helped anticipate things on defense.
Most importantly, he’s back after missing last year with a knee injury.
“It was tough watching my teammates because I wanted to be out there,’’ he said.
Rodriguez announced Washington’s suspension after Tuesday’s practice, citing unspecified team rules violations.
“For right now, he’s not practicing,’’ Rodriguez said. “He’s got to do some other things before we allow him to join the Wildcats.”
Washington (6-foot-2, 268 pounds) had 18 total tackles last season after having 46 as a freshman All-American in 2010.