While the experience was thin, the Wildcats took what they had, even stealing Marquis Flowers from the secondary and making him a starting linebacker. Accompanied by Jake Fischer and Sir Thomas Jackson, Arizona had a group of somewhat experienced players that was suited to take on the task of being the starting core for mid-level defense.
Those three started the first few games and rarely (if at all) were on the sidelines when the defense was on the field. It showed in good and bad ways. The good was that Jake Fischer was the Pac-12's leading tackler for the first half of the season. He finished third in the conference with 119 tackles on the season, but also contributed a number of other ways, forcing three fumbles and recovering another four.
The bad side was the physical wear that it took on the players. Not only were they tired at the end of games, but the linebackers seemed unable to fully recuperate from week to week and it caused a few injuries down the stretch. Hank Hobson was injured after just playing seven games on the season, as he suffered a neck injury that cost him the remainder of the year.
Marquis Flowers – The junior switched from his natural position in the summer and found a new home at linebacker. It took a while for him to adjust, but by time the first game came around, Flowers was ready to contribute. He had ten tackles in his linebacker debut, third highest on the team.
Flowers was a key player in a few of Arizona's big wins throughout the season, including the upset over USC. In that victory, he tallied seven tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted Matt Barkley twice. Flowers also ended the season on a high note for the Wildcats. In the bowl game against Nevada, he recovered the onside kick that helped his team score the go-ahead touchdown and then intercepted Nevada's Cody Fajardo in the final seconds of the game to seal the win.
It is possible that Flowers remains at the linebacker position. However, the plan is to move him back to one of the safety positions now that there is more experience and depth in the linebacker unit.
Sir Thomas Jackson – Starting in all but one game as a redshirt freshman is a difficult thing to do. Doing it all as a walk-on may be even harder, but Jackson found a way to stand out and earn every minute of playing time. He wasn't offered a scholarship to Arizona, but joined the team a season ago in hopes of being noticed. Rodriguez and his staff did notice the walk-on and gave him an opportunity.
Jackson did everything he could with it, finishing with 58 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He is a player that will need to continue to improve if he wants to remain in the playing rotation. The sophomore-to-be is going to be challenged with the other freshmen improving and the new players coming in, but has a year of experience to fall back on.
Hank Hobson – The junior did not play in the first two games of the season, but began seeing increasing playing time up until the game against UCLA when Hobson took a bad hit and later collapsed on the field. He was diagnosed with a neck injury and did not play the remainder of the season. Up to that point, Hobson had accumulated just fourteen tackles and a lone sack.
Dakota Conwell – Conwell came into fall camp wanting to see the field early in his career. It took the entire fall camp and a few weeks into the season before it happened, but he eventually earned the coaches trust and got on the field. He made his debut against South Carolina State with just a single tackle, but it was a big sack, dropping the quarterback for a ten-yard loss. Conwell finished the season with twelve tackles.
C.J. Dozier – The freshman was one of the only incoming players to enroll early and get some practice in during the spring. It helped in the long run, though Dozier was also a slow starter for the defense. He saw spot action in the South Carolina State game and a few other games down the line, but eventually got the starting nod against Colorado. Dozier finished the season strong, leading the team in tackles in the bowl victory over Nevada with fifteen.
Who's gone: Marquis Flowers (possible position change)
Who's back: Vaughn Brinkman (freshman), Dakota Conwell (sophomore), C.J. Dozier (sophomore), Jake Fischer (senior), Devin Gordon (sophomore), Hank Hobson (junior), Cody Ippolito (sophomore), Sir Thomas Jackson (sophomore), Anthony Lopez (sophomore), Shadow Williams (freshman)
Outlook: If Flowers does not play linebacker, it means that Arizona is comfortable at the position. The emergence of Conwell and Dozier towards the end of the season is promising, as they were slow to learn the system last fall.
Fischer is going to be the leader of the unit, although he may be challenged for playing time if the younger players develop faster than expected. His experience is the best thing that he brings to the table, but the coaches need him to improve on his speed in the offseason.
Sir Thomas Jackson is a player that many will keep an eye on. If he continues to improve and thrive in the system, he can become a solid linebacker. Jackson's biggest question mark is his ceiling, but if he can get better and grow as a player, there's no reason to count him out.
One of the biggest questions for the linebackers is Hobson's health. Not much was ever really known about his injury, but it seemed to be pretty bad at the time. He had to be taken off the field on a stretcher and then visited the hospital for the night. Neck injuries can be serious and his recovery process throughout the offseason is something that should be monitored.
As for the incoming players, Brandon Golson is a junior college transfer that should see playing time immediately. He is a prototypical linebacker that fits the 3-3-5 scheme run by Jeff Casteel almost perfectly. Golson's speed and strength combine with his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame nicely and he is a player that may be able to shake up the starting rotation early on.
DeAndre Miller is another freshman that has a chance to play quality minutes early in his career. If he can get to fall camp and learn the system, Miller has the talent and physicality to get on the field. He chose to play for the Wildcats over offers from Arizona State, Boise State, and Nevada and there is little doubt that he can make an impact once he gets acclimated to the team.
The Wildcats' linebackers should be improved from a season ago, despite the possible loss of Flowers. With more experience and better depth, Arizona should have a better defense in the second campaign for Rodriguez and Casteel.