When new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads made the decision to implement a 3-4 front back in the spring, his decision was at least partly influenced by the presence of three returning senior starters at the linebacker position.
Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler would patrol the middle of the field, while Anthony Pandy handling one outside spot and Jalen Harris moving back from defensive end to handle the other. On paper, at least, it seemed like the Arizona Wildcats’ biggest strength on that side of the ball.
Now, with less than three weeks until the 2020 opener at Utah, Arizona’s linebacker arrangement is still a work in progress.
“What we’ve done is taken who we have and made the best of it,” outside linebackers coach Andy Buh said Tuesday via Zoom. “We’re still in the installation phase, we’re still installing all the pieces.”
There aren’t that many pieces when it comes to scholarship athletes. Only six are available to play this season, making it very likely that multiple walk-ons will be part of the LB rotation.
Such was the hand Arizona was dealt when Fields and Schooler, who combined for 192 tackles last year and 599 for their careers, decided to transfer during the summer. That pushed Pandy inside, where last week he said he will be “calling pretty much the shots on defense,” but left the Wildcats with nobody on the roster that’s ever played anything remotely close to outside linebacker at the college level since they operated mostly out of a 4-2-5 since at least 2017.
The saving grace for Buh figures to be Harris, who led Arizona with four sacks last year but has yet to show consistency on a weekly basis. So far the move back a level has worked out, Buh said.
“He’s probably the one guy that looks the most natural in the position, and that’s saying a lot since he had his hand in the dirt for most of his career here,” Buh said. “He is an incredible talent.”
Harris is a lock for one starting spot, but after that things get murky. Redshirt freshman Kwabena Watson could end up starting on the other side, assuming he learns how to play in space after coming to the UA as a defensive end.
“He’s got a ways to go,” Buh said of Watson. “He’s young, he’s got a lot of natural gifts, he does have some twitch off the edge. He’s going through a process. We’re breaking it down for him, we’re putting him in positions that he’s never been in.”
Same goes for redshirt sophomore Issaiah Johnson, who like Watson came in as a defensive end. Buh says Johnson was “the closest guy that would fit that position” among ends and has shown potential so far in the preseason.
After that? Buh indicated as many as four or five walk-ons are getting looked at for meaningful reps, with redshirt junior Rourke Freeburg leading the pack. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Freeburg has appeared in 15 career games, mostly on special teams, but that’s 12 more than Johnson and Watson’s combined total.
“Rourke Freeburg is getting reps, rotating at the 1 and the 2 spot,” Buh said. “He’s got a chance, he’s competing with Kwabena.”
Figuring out the personnel is only a small part of the process, Buh said. Most of the work is teaching all the various defensive scenarios that normally would have been cycled through during spring practice.
“You have a lot of situations that come up in a football game, from going out to coming in, to short yardage to goal line, to red zone, to base first and second down, to pressures, to coverage in those long-yardage situations,” he said. “I just named seven or eight situations, those all require different defenses. To say we have it all nailed down in 10 days, that would be crazy. A Zoom meeting doesn’t get all that.
“You couldn’t grab ‘em, you couldn’t show them something on film and then put them in that situation so you can feel it and learn it. When you go through a Zoom meeting you don’t know how much they’re getting. We can probably guarantee like 30 percent. Now we’re catching up.”