I run my finger down Utah’s football roster and wonder: did someone type this in the dark?
Trevor Reilly, 25.
Westlee Tonga, 25.
Junior Salt, 25.
Sean Fitzgerald, 25.
Is this a college football team?
The Utes have six players who are 25. They have four who are 24.
“They’re grown men,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
The Utes have 23 players who are at least 23 or will turn 23 this season. Many of them are married with children. Many are returned Mormon missionaries.
It is a level of maturity and physical development with which Arizona is unfamiliar.
Compared to the Utes, Arizona should be carded at the gate. The Wildcats have just four players who are 23. but three of them — Derrick Rainey, Eric Bender-Ramsay and Kylan Butler – usually don’t play.
The oldest Wildcat who gets on the field is linebacker Jake Fischer, 23.
Will UA players refer to the Utes as Mr. Salt and Mr. Tonga?
I mean, Nick Foles is starting for the Philadelphia Eagles and he’s just 24. His favorite UA receiver, Juron Criner of the Oakland Raiders, is only 23.
“A lot of people talk about young players being inexperienced but I think the biggest factor is strength,” said Rodriguez. “You’re not as strong when you’re 18 or 19 as you are when you’re 22, 23, or 25.”
Arizona’s only All-Pac-12 linebacker since the Lance Briggs days was Spencer Larsen, who interrupted his UA career with a two-year Mormon mission. When Larsen returned for the 2005 season, he had gone from boy to man.
Larsen was 23 in 2007, the same age as Brooks Reed in 2010, when Reed became Arizona’s only defensive lineman this century to become a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.
It’s just my opinion, but Arizona’s best defensive player, its franchise-to-build-around, is linebacker Scooby Wright, a true freshman. He graduated from high school five months ago. Utah’s best player, linebacker Trevor Reilly, graduated from high school in 2006.
Wright was in the fifth grade.
The collapse of the Mike Stoops’ program meant more than just changing coaches. It meant that the UA would be seriously set back in personnel development.
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has coached 109 games at Utah; RichRod will coach his 19th game at UA on Saturday.
Whittingham has established such recruiting continuity over nine seasons that he replaced consensus All-America defensive lineman Star Lotulelei and four-year starter Dave Kruger without pause.
Tenny Palepoi and L.T. Tuipulotu have emerged as two high-quality BCS defensive lineman. And why not? Palepoi, married with two kids, turns 23 in December and is in his fifth college season. Tuipulotu, 23, is also married with a child, in his fifth college season.
It will take RichRod a few more years to build that type of system and build his boys into men.
“Even though we lost Star and Kruger, we expected to have one of the best, if not the best defensive front in the conference,” Whittingham said at his Monday press session. “So far, through the first half of the season, we’re leading the league in sacks.”
Arizona is last in the league with six sacks.
The Wildcats are so young, thin and out-manned on their defensive front that when USC took possession with 4:13 remaining last week, leading 38-31, it essentially called the same play seven times in a row.
Isn’t that a record?
Seven times in succession, the Trojans handed the ball to tailback Silas Redd and seven times he ran left. Redd gained 43 total yards and ran out the clock.
The Trojans became famous 40 years ago for Student-Body left and Student-Body right. They closed out Arizona by running Redd Left.
The irony is that the two players who might’ve come to Arizona’s rescue, stopped Redd and forced a punt, are serving Mormon missions.
Sani Fuimaono and Aiulua Fanene were promising defensive linemen at Arizona in 2011. Fuimaono is now in Vina del Mar, Chile; Fanene is in Liverpool, England.
Arizona hasn’t had time to find or develop suitable replacements.
It’s not that the Utes are a national power and have an age-requirement before you can break into Whittingham’s lineup. Utah has played eight true freshmen this season. But when the Utes are in a jam, when they need help up front, they can summon defensive end Thretton Palamo.
Palamo is 25. He is the former captain of the USA Rugby team.
He won’t need permission to stay up past bedtime.