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Arizona football: Rich Rodriguez ‘excited’ about Wildcats’ young linebackers

Big expectations for these incoming freshmen

Hawaii v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats lost their top five linebackers from a season ago, but Rich Rodriguez has a lot of optimism for the unit in 2017.

“The position that I’m excited about, even though there’s going to be some new guys playing, is at linebacker,” he said at Pac-12 Media Days this week.

“We got really thin there the last two years. ... We’ve got about six or seven new linebackers that are probably going to play, but I’m not nervous about it, because they’re more talented than what we’ve had there.”

Gone are Michael Barton, John Kenny, Cody Ippolito, Paul Magloire Jr., and Jake Matthews, who all rotated at linebacker last season. Together they combined for 244 tackles, just over 30 percent of Arizona’s total tackles.

Yet, they aren’t exactly irreplaceable, plus they had trouble staying healthy, which led Rodriguez to scramble to find guys to play the position.

“Last year, by the end of the year, because of injuries the last couple years, we were just finding safeties and walk-on safeties to play linebacker," Rodriguez said.

“So we addressed that in recruiting and we got some talented guys, but we gotta get them to learn Division I football, because I think physically a lot of them are going to be ready.”

Josh Brown, Tony Fields, Anthony Pandy, Jose Ramirez, Colin Schooler and Kylan Wilborn are all entering the program as freshman linebackers this season.

And although listed as defensive ends, Jalen Harris and My-King Johnson have the ability to play as 3-4 outside linebackers at the stud position, too.

Arizona has loaded up with linebackers for the next four years, and as Rodriguez mentioned, the group is physically ready to play, coming in with Pac-12-caliber size and strength.

They’re still inexperienced, though.

Brandon Rutt, who is entering his fourth year in the program but has hardly played, ran as the middle linebacker on first team defense this offseason. Last season, he started carving out a nice role for himself as he stepped up for the injured Paul Magloire Jr.

Gavin Robertson, a redshirt freshman who was recruited as a safety, starred as the first team weak-side linebacker this spring.

Then there is DeAndre’ Miller, a redshirt senior who has been plagued by injuries his entire career. He was scheduled to attend Pac-12 Media Days, however a foot injury kept him back in Tucson and could keep him out for the start of the regular season.

After Rutt, Robertson, and Miller, Rodriguez will have to turn to the freshmen. Brown, Schooler and Pandy all are likely to come in at middle linebacker and play in the early weeks.

“The number of guys you play at linebacker now ... there’s four, five, or six linebackers that may play on a constant rotating basis," Rodriguez said.

Ramirez could wind up as the starting stud linebacker if Miller’s injuries persist. The 6-foot-3, 215 pound linebacker was a very late addition to the class and ended up enrolling at Arizona in January, participating with the team all spring.

And at weakside linebacker, Tony Fields II has received high praise from Rodriguez all offseason.

Right now the depth chart is unclear, but these freshman linebackers have a high ceiling, and some will be called on and expected to contribute immediately this season.