PJ Johnson declares for NFL Draft, how will Arizona replace the DT?

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Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat Wildcat PJ Johnson (52) poses with Oregon players after the Arizona-Oregon game on Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Az,

Arizona defensive tackle PJ Johnson announced his decision to enter the 2019 NFL draft in an official statement on Twitter Wednesday morning.  

Along with thanking former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and Johnson’s position coach during the time of his recruitment, Vince Amey, the junior college transfer said, “my kids are my biggest driving force and I must do what is best for them.”   

Johnson also added his appreciation for current head coach Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Arizona coaching staff.  

Although Johnson was positioned to anchor Arizona’s defensive line next season, his decision to begin preparation for the 2019 draft isn’t necessarily a surprise.  

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Johnson has battled back from several serious setbacks throughout his football career, including a burst appendix and the removal of a tumor from his right leg. Not to mention, he’s played in three different cities since graduating from Burbank High School in Sacramento in 2014. Now that he’s graduated again, he’ll focus on providing for his two young children.  

As Johnson embarks on a new journey, his former team will be tasked with filling monster-sized shoes in the middle of its defense. Arizona’s interior defensive line returns very little experience outside of rising redshirt senior Finton Connolly, which means Sumlin’s first complete recruiting class may have to make an immediate impact, or the ‘Cats will risk being pummeled at the point of attack for the fourth straight season.  

Despite the reason for concern, Johnson’s departure may actually be a blessing in disguise. Arizona was at its best, defensively, last season when Johnson lined up on the edge, where he was able to utilize his strength and speed, rather than eating blocks between the tackles.  


PJ Johnson (52) stands near the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped during the Arizona vs BYU game on Sept. 1, 2018 at Arizona Stadium.


At times, however, Arizona had to play him inside because they were looking for ways to get more athletic defenders involved in pass-rushing situations. Players like J.B. Brown, Jalen Harris and Jalen Cochran will have the opportunity to carve out consistent roles now that Johnson’s versatility is no longer an option. Even redshirt senior Justin Belknap should have the chance to earn valuable playing time when he returns to the mix.  

No matter how the rotation of Arizona’s returning defenders pans out, one thing is for certain: Any incoming junior college players should be ready to contribute sooner rather than later along the ‘Cats defensive line.  

Front-seven signees Kane Bradford, Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa could all emerge as starters by August, but the latter two have a greater chance of immediately stepping into the fold.  

Just like Johnson proved last season, and like Dereck Boles did in 2017, junior college prospects typically arrive on campus ahead of their peers, both mentally and physically. The age advantage affects everything from size and strength, to confidence and knowledge.   

Even if Sumlin was caught off guard by Johnson’s departure, he’s already taken the necessary measures to ensure that Arizona fields an imposing and powerful defense in the 2019 season.  

The ‘Cats will have between now and Aug. 24, when they kick off the college football season off the mainland versus Hawai’i, to configure their lineup of choice. 


Follow Rob Kleifield on Twitter



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