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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Transfer linebacker ready to lead Arizona defense

Transfer linebacker ready to lead Arizona defense

Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo were the Arizona football team’s best and most productive linebackers in the 2011 season. Now, the two have used up their eligibility and are trying their hands at making an NFL roster.

The Wildcats should be in trouble, losing their top two tacklers. But thanks to a key transfer — in addition to the return of Jake Fischer — Arizona might be even better off at the linebacker position than it was before Vassallo and Earls’ careers ended at the UA.

Brian Wagner, a transfer linebacker from Akron, is exactly what Arizona needs. Even with Vassallo and Earls manning the middle of the field, tackling was one of the Wildcats’ most glaring weaknesses last season, as evidenced by its 110th overall defensive ranking.

Wagner, along with Fischer, should be able to help put an end to the team’s tackling struggles. Vassallo and Earls combined to tally 144 tackles in 2011 — Wagner had 147 on his own, good for second in the nation. In 2010, Wagner was fourth in the nation with 130 tackles, and as a redshirt freshman in 2009, he recorded 132 tackles.

As ridiculous as those numbers might look at first glance, it’s important to remember one other statistic — Akron won five games over the last three seasons.

“I’m hoping to come here and help the team in any way I can,” Wagner said after Arizona’s second spring practice. “I know they’ve got some great players here. I’m just trying to come in and hopefully turn this program around and hopefully win a lot more games than three next year.”

Transfer players typically have to sit out a year before they are eligible to start playing for their new team. Luckily for Wagner and Arizona, he’s eligible to play immediately.

Wagner received his bachelor’s degree prior to leaving Akron and NCAA rules permit transferring players who are pursuing graduate programs not offered at their original school to play right away. Wagner has been taking graduate courses in biostatistics, which is a field of study he admits is a bit tough.

“It’s hard to explain … It’s pretty rigorous,” Wagner said.
While Wagner might be a little undersized for a middle linebacker at 6-foot, 235 pounds, no one can accuse him of not having the smarts it takes to grasp new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme.

“My redshirt year, I kind of ran it a bit at Akron, the 3-3-5,” Wagner said. “It’s definitely a defense not like the 4-3 I ran last year. You have to know where everyone is … With coach Casteel, it’s been kind of crazy these first few (practices) trying to get a hold of the defense.”

Head coach Rich Rodriguez, in addition to raving about Wagner’s intelligence, said before Wednesday’s practice that he was anxious to see how Wagner played with the pads on. Rodriguez got his chance on Wednesday when the Wildcats had their first full-pad practice of the spring.

“He’s a smart guy, you can tell he’s played a lot of football. The days in pads will tell us more,” Rodriguez said. “You know he’s not a big guy, he’s not the fastest guy, but he’s big enough and runs well enough and you can tell he loves football. He’s a smart guy. We need him to be a player. This spring is going to be key for us to have confidence in Brian.”

Fischer, who missed all of last season due to an ACL injury, showed Wagner around Tucson when he came to visit before committing. Fischer said Wagner is quiet, but if past performance is any indication, that won’t really matter.

“He’s a very cool dude — soft-spoken dude. We all get along very well,” Fischer said. “He’s like the quiet guy, but he’s going to come out and hit you.”

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