Arizona's defense is undergoing somewhat of an overhaul under new coordinator Jeff Casteel. While much of the returning personnel will remain in the same place as before, the responsibilities could slightly alter from position to position.
One area that may not look any different in where they line up is the linebacker position. There will still be the same amount of linebackers on the field as in the previous defensive scheme ran at Arizona, but the style of athlete may vary a bit from what UA fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
Casteel tends to buy into head coach Rich Rodriguez's philosophy of speed, so it's a good thing that Arizona has a player like Jake Fischer returning after missing a year with an ACL injury. Fischer was a very productive player as a sophomore in 2010, collecting 58 tackles – 7.5 for loss – and two sacks. Fischer has the quickness to get from sideline to sideline and his skill-set should translate well to Casteel's system.
The question surrounding Fischer is just how he will look coming off a serious football injury. If he is able to regain the strength and speed he had as a sophomore, he should be able to fill one of the linebacker jobs effectively.
Brian Wagner is a name that many Arizona fans may not be too familiar with at this point in time, but he could very well be the biggest addition to the team heading into 2012. Wagner joins the Wildcats after starting for three years at Akron. Wagner transferred from Akron after graduating and has one year of eligibility left.
Wagner not only brings experience at the position, but he has been one of the nation's top tacklers for three straight seasons. As a freshman in 2009, Wagner finished tied for 12th in the nation in tackles with 132. The following year he tied for 16th nationally with 130 tackles and finally, as a junior, Wagner tied for fourth in the country with 147 stops.
It should be interesting to see how Wagner translates to the Pac-12. The Mid-American Conference has proven to be formidable in the past, but playing against opponents that are generally going to be better athletes is going to be a tough transition for him to make. Wagner has proven to be productive on a consistent basis though and he should continue to make a big impact at Arizona.
In 2011, true freshman Tra'Mayne Bondurant was plugged in at linebacker and excelled despite being undersized. He finished the season with 45 tackles – 3.5 for loss – one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and six passes broken up.
Bondurant could very well remain at linebacker and would likely be productive in a similar role he played a year ago, but the new staff could move him back to defensive back if they feel differently.
Last season, true freshman Rob Hankins received plenty of playing time and even started a few games. It was an up-and-down season for Hankins, but he showed plenty of potential and the ability to provide powerful, crushing hits. Hankins collected 10 tackles in 2011, but with a year of experience under his belt, he could see an increased role as a sophomore if he adapts to Casteel's system quickly.
Hank Hobson is in a similar situation as Hankins. Heading into his sophomore season, Hobson is looking to battle for more playing time and possible a starting job. He played in limited action as a freshman – coming up with eight tackles in 11 appearances – and he should be in a better position to battle for playing time in 2012.
JUCO transfer David Lopez was a late addition to the 2011 class and was expected to battle for a starting job due to the Wildcats' lack of depth at linebacker. Lopez struggled to adapt to the increased level of play and failed to earn a starting job. Lopez saw very limited action and collected just two tackles throughout the course of the season. The soon-to-be-senior could work his way into the rotation, but he is going up against some young and fiery competition.
An early enrollee from the 2012 class is C.J. Dozier. Already on campus after finishing high school a semester early, Dozier is working hard in order to move up the depth chart and his early arrival gives him a leg up on other 2012 linebacker prospects. He still has some size to add, but he has six months to get into a position where he can earn playing time as a true freshman.
Dakota Conwell is one of the more prized recruits from the 2012 class. Conwell was originally committed to Pitt, but after nearly the entire Panthers' football staff left for other jobs, Conwell reopened his recruitment. Arizona eventually swooped up the Pittsburgh native and it helped the Wildcats fill a void at linebacker.
Conwell has the frame of a natural linebacker and should see the field early in his college career. Exactly when depends on how quickly he learns Casteel's playbook and if he adapts to the speed of the college game early.
Then there is Chaparral product Cody Ippolito. The Wildcats were able to land the in-state prospect and he should be able to make an impact at some point down the road. Chances are that he redshirts (or even greyshirts) in 2012, but he's a player to track as his college career progresses.
The key to the linebacker position in 2012 is finding players who can make up for the production left behind by departed players Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls. Neither is irreplaceable, but Vassallo was one of the Pac-12's better tacklers and Earls brought athleticism to the linebacker position. They were two of team's leading tacklers each season they were at Arizona, so finding players who can pick up the slack is vital.
There is a little uncertainty surrounding the linebacker position, but there is also plenty of hope and potential. The return of Fischer and the addition of one of the nation's leading tacklers over the past three seasons give the position a much needed boost heading into the defense's first season under Casteel.
If both players can produce at levels they have previously performed at, the linebacker position could ultimately develop into one of Arizona's strengths on the defensive side of the ball.
State of the Roster: Linebacker
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