Linebackers still work in progress

Linebacker may be the thinnest position on Arizona. Read on to see what Rich Rodriguez is doing about it, his general thoughts on the position, and more.

There are a lot of questions facing the Arizona defense this year. How will it perform in the new 3-3-5 system that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has installed? Who will step up into the role of leader? Are there any defensive playmakers on the roster that will emerge?

When it comes to the biggest question mark for the defense, though, look no further than the linebacker position. The unit replaces two departed players from the 2011 squad and the lone returning starter – Jake Fischer - didn't play a season ago due to an ACL injury.

Despite coming off a relatively serious knee injury, Fischer is probably the least of the coaching staff's concerns at the position. How well the unit performs will largely depend on which youngsters are ready to take on the role of a full time starter at the Pac-12 level.

A candidate looking to fill that role is sophomore Hank Hobson. As a true freshman, Hobson was forced into action due to the lack of depth and production at the linebacker position and it came with mixed results. Head coach Rich Rodriguez anticipates Hobson playing a significant part in the linebacker corps in 2012 and has noticed his improvement since the end of last season.

"Hank is going to play a lot," Rodriguez said. "He had a good spring. He's a tough guy. He got some experience last year before he was ready, probably, and I think it will serve him well. I really like Hank. That's our thinnest position and Hank has shown that he is going to be able to contribute."

Hobson played in 11 games, appearing mostly on special teams, and collected eight total tackles. His biggest game was on the road against USC, where he totaled three tackles on the afternoon. His production is guaranteed to increase with a larger role looming.

Hobson will have to battle fellow sophomore Rob Hankins for playing time. Noticeably bigger than at he was conclusion at the end of the 2011 campaign, Hankins has positioned himself for more playing time as well. Like Hobson, Hankins was thrown into action as a true freshman and produced sporadic results.

Rodriguez knows Hankins is better suited to play more in 2012 and has taken note of his improvements over the offseason.

"He's a little banged up," Rodriguez said. "But he's gotten better since spring. He's another guy who got thrown in there because of necessity last year before he was ready and he's a little more prepared now. Their attitudes have been good and coach (Jeff) Casteel is going to coach them up."

It is currently unclear who will line up with Fischer at linebacker. There are numerous candidates vying for the job and it isn't just open to the sophomores. Rodriguez believes the newcomers could contend for the job as well.

"It's a revolving door," Rodriguez said. "Hank could be in there. It could be Rob. It could be one of those freshmen."

It's mostly an inexperienced bunch that will occupy the middle of the defense for the Wildcats, but that doesn't change the expectations that the head coach has set for his defense.

"Coach Casteel's got a big job in front of him to coach them up," Rodriguez said. "But whoever is in there, we expect them to play hard and play well."

Rodriguez and Casteel have a little time before a decision needs to be made regarding the defensive depth chart and, specifically, the linebacker position. Who lines up inside is still up in the air, but Rodriguez knows the type of player he is looking for to man the middle of the unit.

"Your middle linebacker has to be a guy who loves to mix it up a little bit," Rodriguez said. "He's not just a run player, but a guy who is in the middle of all the action. It's like being a nose guard.

"He's going to have guys coming from all angles, coming low, coming high and everywhere in between, so it's got to be a tough guy that wants to stick his face in the fan, as we say."

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