The Arizona linebacking corps can be viewed a few ways. On one hand, the group is replacing two of its best defensive players from the first two years of the Rich Rodriguez era. Looked at from another perspective, it's hard to imagine replacements for captain Jake Fischer and heat-seeking tackler Marquis Flowers being any more ready. Expectations are a little easier to process when the list of returning players are at least familiar names.
Key losses: Jake Fischer, Marquis Flowers
Key returners: Scooby Wright III, Derrick Turituri, DeAndre' Miller, Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea (formerly Keoni Bush-Loo), Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews, Hank Hobson, Sir Thomas Jackson
Key newcomers: Jamardre Cobb, Antonio Smothers (JC transfer), Marquis Ware
Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea isn't a new player but returning linebacker Keoni Bush-Loo (Steve Rivera of Fox Sports has the story behind the name change), who played in 13 games as a reserve last season. Kema-Kaleiwahea, a junior, is fighting both sophomore Derrick Turituri and redshirt sophomore Cody Ippolito to replace Flowers at strongside linebacker. Turituri also saw action in every game last year.
And at weakside linebacker, sophomores DeAndre' Miller and Jake Matthews are battling for playing time. Miller had limited duty as a true freshman, but this is by far the least-experienced position within the group.
The rock of the linebacker group is no doubt Wright.
He was quietly one of the best freshman in the Pac-12 last season and already had an impressive physical profile. He also didn't make too many mistakes, taking on a starting role and acting as the third wheel beside Fischer and Flowers. Wright tied with bandit safety Jared Tevis for 83 tackles last season, the third-most behind his two linebacker teammates. Wright was also third on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss.
Sliding into the middle linebacker slot previously occupied by Fischer will test the sophomore. There, he's probably less likely to be getting into the backfield and more relied upon to clog up the run game, but it's expected that the 246-pounder with speed will be atop the total tackle charts once again. Senior Hank Hobson, who has struggled with injuries but has experience dating back to the Mike Stoops era, is backing up Wright.
Whether the Wildcats get enough out of the strongside and weakside spots is the big question mark, but there are plenty of options for RichRod to pick and choose early in the nonconference schedule. There is a little more experience in the depth chart than most would expect, and Rodriguez creating competition at two spots seems like a savvy move in the hopes that one player at each will create a bit of separation to become the starter.
Wright will be leading the unit and much of the defense. He could take a major step forward from an incredibly promising freshman season, but it'll be on the other two linebackers to add a pass-rush assisting the three-man defensive line. The line had its own questions, after all.
While Tevis and spur safety William Parks will be used in the box in the 3-3-5, quite of bit of pressure is on the linebacking group to produce, sometimes as pseudo-members of the defensive line and sometimes as traditional linebackers.