Scouting Out Arizona's Linebackers

In this segment we take a look at the linebackers of Arizona, and who better to ask than those that will face them? Total Blue Sports caught up with tight ends Vic So'oto and Dennis Pitta, and running backs Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna, and got some insight on the Wildcats manning the middle of their defense.

The group of linebackers that Arizona will be bringing to town this week are, for the most part, similar to what BYU saw in Tucson last year.

"[Arizona's linebackers] have two returning starters," said tight end Vic So'oto. "They run a 4-3 defense and then will bring in an extra linebacker for third-and-long. They have number 51 [Spencer Larsen], who is a linebacker, and then number 33 [Ronnie Palmer] is coming in as well. They have those two guys as returning starters, and then they have number 39 [Dane Krogstad], who is coming up this year."

Although the Wildcats play four down linemen with three linebackers, they have added a few wrinkles to the 4-3 defense.

"They run a 4-3 defense basically," said Pitta. "They do like to bring up a safety to the linebacker spot sometimes. A lot of times they'll bring up that safety up as that fourth linebacker, so we'll treat him as a linebacker when he comes up."

"We like it when we play a zone defense," said running back Harvey Unga. "We have a backfield where we can not only run the ball, but we can catch the ball out of the backfield. We can run routes and find holes in the defense to help us get open. We have a good idea of what they're going to do, and we know what we're going to do in that aspect."

Although the Cougars did manage over 300 yards of total offense in last year's matchup against Arizona, the Wildcats held BYU's running backs to a total of 24 total rushing yards (a figure that includes yardage lost due to sacks). BYU will be without Curtis Brown, but will have Unga and junior running back Fui Vakapuna.

"They have their really good linebackers in numbers 33 [Palmer] and 51 [Larsen]," said Unga. "Coach told us that they are really good players and that we need to respect who they are, but these are guys who are not out of our league…If we play within our game and do what we need to do by sticking to the fundamentals, we should be fine against them."

"They're big and stout like every other linebacker we'll see this year," said Fui Vakapuna. "Number 51 [Larsen] is a pretty good-sized linebacker. I do think they'll be some of the bigger linebackers we'll see though. They're aggressive, and when they blitz they go all out."

Last year while a sophomore running back, Fui Vakapuna practiced day in and day out against a similar type of linebacker in Cameron Jensen, who is currently with the Seattle Seahawks.

"Man, Cameron Jensen was amazing," said Vakapuna. "Cameron Jensen was one of the hardest workers and was technically sound on the field. It's hard for me to compare anyone to Cameron Jensen. It's hard for me to do that because he was really good."

So'oto also feels that his Wildcat opponents are talented, but that he and his Cougar teammates face comparable - if not better - competition during practice at BYU.

"[Arizona's linebackers] run to the ball well and are good players," So'oto said. "I don't think they compare to Bryan Kehl, Kelly Poppinga or David Nixon, but they're great players. We have respect for them, but we can't wait to see them on Saturday."

The Wildcats run what is typically called a cover two defense, in which the safeties cover zones downfield for deeper routes, and the linebackers play a zone in the middle. The defense is designed more to try and stop the short passing game.

"They run a lot of cover two," said So'oto. "The linebackers are mostly inside of the tight end. In the passing game they try and bump us off of our routes. This is what they tried to do against us in the last game we had against them, and this is something I'm sure they'll try and do again.

"We know they play a lot of zone and the linebackers like to drop back and play a zone coverage," said Dennis Pitta. "It's going to be more of us finding holes in the defense rather than us trying to go one-on-one with them in our routes. They move well and they're big and physical linebackers."

BYU's tight ends are expecting a physical game from the Wildcat linebackers.

"When we're running routes we're looking out for the linebackers trying to bump us off of our routes," said So'oto. "We're expecting a physical route running game and a physical game overall."

"They're athletic guys and they're going to try and play a physical game," said Dennis Pitta. "We have to come out and match their physicality and play hard every down. We just have to execute at a higher level than them."

"They're human just like us," said Unga. "They make mistakes and have weaknesses just like everyone else. Size-wise, it's not much of an issue with us."

There is a perception often held by fans and commentators that teams like BYU can't compete with or defeat teams from BCS conferences. Prior to BYU's 38-8 win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl last year, Coach Bellotti told the media that he felt that the Cougars could not compete in the Pac-10.

"We have big boys too that can match up with them," Unga said. "I was talking with Manase [Tonga], and he said a lot of times people will intimidate themselves thinking this is a Pac-10 school, and so their linebackers must be faster than everybody else and that their corners and safeties much be amazingly fast.

"He said when it comes down to it, sure they are fast, but they get hit just like everybody else does, and the intimidation factor is just as much there for them as it is for us. In the sense of us being intimidated, we have to just stick to our game and let them make their mistakes so we can capitalize on it."


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