The start of the football season may be over five months away, but spring ball begins next week and the Arizona Wildcats will start a long journey towards the beginning of the 2011 college football season as they had back to the practice field.
The Wildcats have a lot to sort out on both sides of the ball. On the defensive side, the one area that is not seeing any real turnover is the linebacker position. UA returns all three starters from last year and will rely on some of its young talent to step up in reserve roles.
In 2010, many had pegged the linebacker position as a huge question mark as the squad was forced to replace all three starters from the season prior. Instead, the linebackers were one of the strengths of the defense in the early portion of the season and were steady throughout the final two months of the campaign.
JUCO transfers Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls were both pleasant surprises in their own right. Earls was a highly touted linebacker blessed with great athleticism and the ability to wrap up the ball carrier consistently. When Earls arrived on campus, he realized that Pac-10 level football was a bit more challenging than what he faced at the JUCO level.
Earls got off to a rough start in camp, but figured it all out by the time the regular season hit. He ended up compiling 44 tackles – 6.5 for loss – one interception, four passes broken up, one sack and a forced fumble. As a senior, he should improve. His vision for the college game certainly got better as the season went on and could be one of the better linebackers in the Pac-12 in 2011.
Not too much was known about Vassallo prior to his arrival and there wasn't too much excitement surrounding him heading into the season. But when Vassallo hit the field against Toledo in the first game of the season, he showed why the coaching staff was high on him in the first place.
By the end of the season, Vassallo was one of the best players on the defensive side of the ball. He finished the season as the team-leader in tackles with 102 – eight behind the line of scrimmage. He also totaled two sacks, broke up a pass and forced a fumble.
Vassallo seemed to always be around the ball in his first year at Arizona. Assuming he continues to progress, like Earls, he could emerge as one better linebackers in the conference.
Along with Earls and Vassallo, returns Jake Fischer. The Ironwood Ridge product was impressive in his first full season as a starter. The soon-to-be-junior finished 2010 with 58 tackles – 7.5 for loss – two sacks and two passes broken up.
At 5-foot-11, 220-pounds, Fischer lacks the size of an ideal outside linebacker, but makes up for it with superior athleticism and great instincts. He will start for a second straight year in 2011 and could be in line for a breakout season.
UA is hoping to get something out of Trevor Erno, who will enter his sophomore season of football in 2011. Erno came to UA as one of the highest rated players in the Wildcats' 2009 class, but has yet to crack the rotation.
Erno appeared in nine games (mostly on special teams) and recorded just one tackle. Assuming he has worked hard to get into better physical shape, he could have a chance to see the field in a backup role.
There is also redshirt freshman Kyle Benson. The product from Tempe Corona Del Sol was recovering from a knee injury he suffered as a high school senior and dropped weight while recuperating. The staff wanted Benson to put on muscle while redshirting and if he was able to bulk up enough, he is another player that could see the field in a backup role.
There are also two freshmen coming in that are looking to see the field as early as possible. Rob Hankins from Dallas Parish Episcopal was recruited by top programs all across the country and there is little question as to why. Hankins is known to be a football junkie who studies the game religiously. At 6-foot-1, 220-pounds, he has the frame to play linebacker at the Pac-12 level.
One look at Hankins can tell you he is a football player that spends a lot of time in the weight room. As he gets more prepared physically for the college game, his chances of playing right off the bat increase significantly.
Then there is Hank Hobson from Bakersfield (Calif.) Stockdale. Hobson stands at 6-foot-2, 220-pounds and has a solid frame to add more weight to. Hobson hasn't had the hype that Hankins has experienced, but the staff likes what tools he has to work with.
The uncertainty surrounding the backups gives both Hankins and Hobson the chance to see the field early in their respective college careers. It will certainly take some work to move their way up the depth chart, but it would not be a surprise to see one or both players on the field in some fashion in 2011.
Linebacker looks to be a strong suit for Arizona, assuming it doesn't have to delve too deep in to the depth chart early in the season. If the Wildcats starters can stay healthy and continue to improve, UA could have one of the better linebacking trios in the Pac-12 in 2011.
Evaluating the Roster: Linebacker
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