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The Thin Linebackers' Thin Margin For Error

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In our second piece of position previews for the Arizona Wildcats' upcoming football season, we bring you the linebacking crew -- or what's left of it (also, check out our first position preview on the special teams unit lacking one Alex Zendejas). Rich Rodriguez brings in a 3-3-5 defense of course, but that middle 3 could be the biggest question mark after injury, defection and depth issues have all hit. What's the outlook?

Key returners: Jake Fischer, Hank Hobson

Key newcomers: Greg Nwoko (sort of), Marquis Flowers (kind of)

Key losses: Paul Vassallo, Derek Earls

Earlier in the summer, I felt like throwing a bone to the defense and giving them a bit of optimism because of their biggest strength. Once safety Adam Hall went down with his second ACL tear in the 2012 spring game, the defensive leadership was effectively handed over to Jake Fischer, who missed all of last season with his own ACL injury suffered in the 2011 spring game.

And despite the linebacking crew being extra thin, Fischer did have two sidekicks with potential and game experience. Akron transfer Brian Wagner decided football was no longer in his plans, but Rob Hankins and Hank Hobson, now sophomores, made the linebacking group look strong.

Hankins has missed the preseason with apparent concussion injuries, reports Anthony Gimino, and now we're left with a scary reality -- there is nobody ready to contribute behind Fischer and Hobson.

Arizona's linebackers are small in size and thin in depth.

Thirteen players are listed at linebacker for the Wildcats, but eight of those are true or redshirt freshmen.

Gimino most recently filled out a depth chart based on what he saw at a scrimmage, and it's become clear Rodriguez is making use of what experience the entire roster has at all. Safety Marquis Flowers has moved to an outside linebacker position to provide speed, but now size becomes an issue.

Flowers really is out of position, but he's last year's fourth-leading tackler with 68 tackles and the top returner in that statistic. The junior, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, was probably too slow at safety and is not physical enough to be considered a true linebacker, but as we've said again and again, experience trumps everything.

So here's what that experience, or lack thereof, looks like: Hankins had 10 tackles in 10 games last year, including three starts, but whether or not he can return from his concussion problems is up in the air. Meanwhile, Hobson has eight tackles through 12 games and one start.

Shadow Williams has been the only freshman linebacker who has been given extended periods of time that we've read about, so then we turn to two-way players, who can be an option to help the linebacking depth.

Running back Greg Nwoko is listed on the roster, not as a running back who might fill in at linebacker, but solely as a linebacker. Considering the depth at his natural position, it's entirely possible he commits fully to the defensive side of the ball.

In short, the options look if not lacking, then at least questionable.

But then you've got to consider Fischer, the defensive leader.

No, he didn't play last season because of the ACL injury, but he's been the fastest player to recover from the slew of ACL tears the Wildcats experience a year ago.

Fischer was the fourth-leading tackler in 2010 as a sophomore. He had 58 tackles, 7.5 for loss and two sacks, meaning he and Flowers manning in the middle zones theoretically makes the most them one of the most-experience defensive units despite all of the problems listed above (I know, the cornerbacks don't have the tackling numbers and might have more upside if Jonathan McKnight returns, but let's save the argument for another day).

Relatively, the linebackers have two guys who we know won't be suffering from stage fright come Saturday's season opener. If that's all we can gather about the unit coming into the year, maybe the defense is in trouble, just as we thought.

That, or they take all those worries head on and surprise us.

Probable starters: Jake Fischer, Marquis Flowers, Hank Hobson

Other contributors: Rob Hankins, Greg Nwoko, Shadow Williams