Arizona’s leader in sacks is an interior lineman who missed much of training camp and two games because of injuries.
Kyon Barrs has as many sacks as USC’s Drake Jackson. Barrs has one fewer sack than Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Utah’s Devin Lloyd — the front-runners for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
You won’t hear Barrs brag about his five sacks, though. The third-year Wildcat gives credit to others for his breakout season.
“I just come out and play every Saturday and do my assignment,” Barrs said amid preparations for Friday’s game at Washington State. “And stuff just falls into place.”
There’s more to it than that. Barrs is big (6-3, 295), quick and plays with nonstop effort. He’s also one of the Wildcats’ most improved players.
In his first two seasons, totaling 16 games, Barrs didn’t have a sack or a tackle for loss. This season, in eight games, he has five and eight, respectively. Both figures pace Arizona’s defense.
“Obviously, he’s a run-stuffer. He’s a tough guy inside,” UA defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “But his ability to rush the passer, he’s trending up. So that’s a good thing. Good for his future too.”
Barrs is the highest-graded player on a much-improved defense, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. PFF credits him with 14 quarterback pressures and 20 defensive stops (plays that constitute a failure for the offense). Both figures rank third on the team.
Barrs also has only one missed tackle this season, per PFF, giving him the lowest missed-tackle rate (3.7%) on the squad among players who have at least 20 tackle attempts.
Regarding his unexpectedly high sack total, Barrs attributes it mostly to Brown’s defensive system.
“Just the different schemes with the different blitzes and stunts we run, it just allows me to get open and get to the quarterback,” Barrs said. “We have a lot of different movements. He can really pull anything out of his pocket. It allows all of us to get open and just do what we gotta do.”
Brown’s blitzes draw blockers away from the defensive linemen. When he sends only four rushers, Brown often will run “stunts” — plays where the defensive linemen cross-cross or loop around one another to try to confuse the offensive linemen.
“We’re game-planning all the time trying to get somebody free,” Brown said. “In some of our movement scenarios, he’s one of the guys that has the opportunity to come free. That’s why we do all that movement, because it’s tough on the offensive line to deal with it.”
Barrs is part of a unit that arguably has become Arizona’s best position group. It stands to lose three of its top performers after this season: Mo Diallo, Jalen Harris and Trevon Mason.
That will make Barrs one of the elder statesmen in the defensive line room next year, when he’ll be a fourth-year junior. He already has embraced a leadership role as a mentor to younger players such as Paris Shand, Dion Wilson Jr., Jason Harris and Regen Terry.
“There’s not much to it,” Barrs said. “They already know what they gotta do. So just stay on top of them. Make sure they’re doing their assignments, doing extra work outside of football, doing extra work in football, in the weight room.”
Barrs’ extra work includes studying the moves of some of the NFL’s best interior linemen. They include Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.
“But that’s every interior D-lineman,” Barrs said.
His other favorites include former New England Patriots standout Vince Wilfork, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Fletcher Cox and the Green Bay Packers’ Kenny Clark. Cox has 55.5 sacks in his 10 NFL seasons. Clark has 21.5 over the past five seasons.
“When an interior lineman gets to the quarterback a lot, it catches your eye,” Barrs said.
He’s starting to experience that first-hand. Barrs was named Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week after the Cal game, in which he posted 2.5 sacks. He and punter Kyle Ostendorp are the only Wildcats to have earned recognition from the conference this season.
That was Barrs’ first game back after he missed the previous two contests because of a lower-leg injury suffered at Colorado. He missed a large chunk of training camp because of a similar injury.
“I’m just glad to be back and making plays for my teammates,” Barrs said.
OL changes on horizon
Defensive line isn’t the only position that will undergo a personnel transformation next season.
Arizona stands to lose at least three offensive linemen from this year’s rotation, if not more. Center Josh McCauley has exhausted his eligibility. Left guard Donovan Laie, a fourth-year junior, participated in the Senior Day ceremony before last week’s home finale vs. Utah. Backup guard Matthew Stefanski Jr., another fourth-year junior, also walked on Senior Day.
“Professor Stefanski has an opportunity to pursue his law degree, so he may not be with us this next year,” offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said. “I applaud him on his choice. He’s done a fantastic job for us this year, getting in and helping.”
Stefanski joined the UA program as a transfer from Grand Valley State before the 2020 season. The Wildcats again are expected to be aggressive in the transfer market after adding 17 players via the portal this past offseason.
Among Arizona’s 15 high school commitments, only two are offensive linemen: Grayson Stovall of Chandler and Jonah Savaiinaea of Honolulu.
“I’m sure that the transfer portal is going to have an effect on our recruiting class,” Carroll said. “How that’s gonna work out, I don’t know. This is uncharted territory for me. I got a little dose of it in the spring, but it’s a pretty new entity. So I’m excited to see how it plays out.”
The NCAA recently approved a one-year waiver of the yearly signing limit, enabling schools to sign extra players to replace those who enter the portal — with a maximum of seven. So Arizona conceivably could add 32 players in the next cycle if seven or more leave.
Brown said cornerback Treydan Stukes‘ promotion to the first team is a product of two factors: Stukes’ improved play and Isaiah Rutherford being banged up. “Rut’s done nothing wrong other than he’s not 100% healthy,” Brown said. “We’re not going to put a guy out there that’s not healthy.”
Barrs on how many times he gets held during a game: “I can’t really speak on that. I just play my game. Whatever the refs call, they call. I can’t control that.”
Washington State will recognize 14 players during its Senior Night on Friday. They include linebackers Justus Rogers and Jahad Woods, who each have appeared in 53 career games. The WSU record is 54 by linebacker Peyton Pelluer. Woods last week set a WSU mark by making his 49th career start.