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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Lack of linebacker depth hurts WIldcats

Daily Wildcat File Photo
Daily Wildcat File Photo

Coming into fall camp, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez’s depth chart for the Arizona football team was full of “or’s” as the new coach waited to further evaluate his roster. Only one group, the linebackers, had all of its starting spots secure. But the decision didn’t come from unquestioned confidence in the returning linebackers. Rather, it came from a complete lack of depth at the position.

“That is definitely our thinnest position,” said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. “Some of our guys will need to be ready a lot sooner than they thought, particularly some freshmen. Jake Fischer is the only guy we know that has gotten a lot of experience, but outside of him, it is wide open.”

Fischer, a junior, is slotted as one of the three starting linebackers this season and is returning from an ACL tear in his right knee that kept him out of the entire 2011 season. Joining him are two sophomores, Rob Hankins and Hank Hobson.

Together they have 12 combined starts and 83 career tackles, but there didn’t seem like there would be an issue at linebacker when camp finished in the spring.

During the spring Brian Wagner, a graduate transfer from Akron, Ohio, filled the leadership role in the middle of the field. Wagner brought talent and a wealth of experience as his 147 combined tackles last season made him the NCAA active leader in career tackles at the time. But in June, Wagner left the program, leaving the Wildcats with few options at linebacker.

“We really miss Brian (Wagner), he was a great player,” Hankins said. “Me and him worked together learning the system, we’re going to miss him a lot. But we were short last year and we’ll be short this year and we’re going to make it work.”

As of now it appears that Jeff Casteel and Rodriguez will need to rely on some true freshmen to step in and provide some support — just like Hankins and Hobson did last year.

“Luckily we got thrown into the fire last year also as freshmen, so it’s not scary this year as sophomores,” Hankins said, who had a career-high five tackles in the Wildcats 37-10 loss last season to Stanford.

Thanks to Fischer’s injury before the season, the linebacking corps faced a similar situation with its depth, and both Hankins and Hobson had to learn on the fly against elite Pac-12 talent.

“Last year they both had to step into starting roles they shouldn’t have been in,” Fischer said. “I think that was really an eye opener for them.”

Fischer added that having big game experience will help them this year and that they will be ready to fully step into the starting role.

As of now, newcomers and some freshmen will have to prepare for games as if they were starters in the event of injury.
The one player already slotted into a backup role is linebacker C.J. Dozier.

The 6-foot-2 inch, 210 pound freshman from Temecula, Calif., is listed as a three-star recruit on Rivals.com, and will be thrown into the fire this season in the same fashion as Hankins and Hobson last season.

“Hopefully these freshmen will grow up in a hurry and coach Casteel will get whoever is there ready to play,” Rodriguez said.
All of the freshmen have until Sept. 1 against Toledo to prepare for the speed of the college game, but Fischer said they’ll have the benefit of playing against the new, high paced offense Rodriguez is installing for the Wildcats.

“Once these (young linebackers) get in there and see what it’s like to go against an offense like ours, I think we’ll be fine,” Fischer said.

The inexperienced and thin linebacker core will be tested plenty this season against some offensive juggernauts, specifically No. 3 USC and at No. 5 Oregon, but Hankins sees it as more of an opportunity to prove themselves than as a shortcoming.

“We like it that way because we can surprise people,” Hankins said. “We can come out and make a statement which is a challenge — and we like it like that.”

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