TUCSON - The Arizona Wildcats have a shortage of defensive tackles, and there’s nothing the UA coaches or players can do about it.
Projected starter Lolomana Mikaele has been suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules, and backup Jowyn Ward is recovering from a sprained foot.
The Wildcats (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-10) will take on No. 25 Cal on Saturday with six eligible tackles — and few prospects.
Even in an age of specialization, defensive tackles remain the toughest players to find and develop.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” UA coach Mike Stoops said. “You can find corners, you can find fast guys. But finding a fast, agile, strong player with leverage … they’re hard to find.”
Defensive tackles need to fit a specific, hard-to-find skill set. They must be large enough to tussle with bigger, stronger offensive linemen and quick enough to surge toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
Arizona coaches look for good technique and explosiveness when trying to find defensive tackles.
Players with quick hands can get under an offensive lineman’s pads a split-second after the ball is snapped.
The leverage generated by good technique can help overcome a size disadvantage.
“It’s mostly hand placement and body position,” UA junior Donald Horton Jr. explained. “I’ve figured out in my fourth year that if you can extend and get (your hands) under a guy, it’s hard for him to stop you.”
Explosiveness — coach-speak for a burst at the line of scrimmage — allows players to chase running backs or, in rare situations, get around a lineman.
Most big players lack the speed to be successful.
“You can put anyone in there to push around on somebody,” Stoops said, “but you’re not going to get the suddenness to make plays.”
Defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo said coaches “need to look in the crystal ball a little bit” when looking for tackles.
The Wildcats have looked high and low.
Arizona has signed 13 defensive tackles since Stoops was hired before the 2004 season; just three of them — Yaniv Barnett, Mikaele and Kaniela Tuipulotu — have started at their natural position.
Johnathan Turner was in the mix at defensive tackle and defensive end but was kicked off the team last spring after being charged with sexual assault.
The rest of Arizona’s starters have been moved to defensive tackle from other positions.