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Arizona football training camp: The quest to keep ‘villain’ LB Justin Flowe within defensive system

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Arizona desperately needs Justin Flowe to be Him. For that to happen, though, it has to reign in Heem.

The Wildcats’ most notable offseason transfer addition comes with a reputation of being hard to control during his three season at Oregon, which also coincided with several injuries that prevented the former 5-star prospect—the No. 1 linebacker in the 2020 recruiting class—from living up to his potential.

So far the plan to keep Flowe on task is working, but it hasn’t been easy.

“That’s an everyday battle for me,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “I’m trying to build some confidence in the kid, and (get him) to really understand that you can be more productive when you’re control. It’s an everyday reminder for him.”

Flowe is competing with Daniel Heimuli, a transfer from Washington, for the starting Mike linebacker position opposite Jacob Manu. Nansen said Flowe has improved a lot from the spring, that he’s starting to really understand where he fits in the defense.

“He’s really become our juice guy out there,” Nansen said. “I’m proud of where he’s at right now, but he’s got a long way to go.”

That juice often manifests itself in the form of “Heem,” what Flowe refers to his alter ego. And apparently the way to summon Heem off the field is to bring up the old school neck pad that Flowe said he’s worn throughout his playing career. Before being asked about that Tuesday, Flowe was noticeably low key in speaking with reporters, but then Heem took over.

“I feel like the neck pad brings like a different mentality to me, I feel like the neck pad turns me into a supervillain,” he said. “Even my teammates, they see me as that, and I just always want to come be a villain every day.”

Flowe said he’s always preferred to be a supervillain than a superhero because of the former’s back stories.

“Villains, they have to go through all that adversity,” he said. “I just thank God every day I’m here in Arizona.”

For Flowe, much of that adversity came during his Oregon career. He appeared in one game during the COVID season, then in 2021 logged had 14 tackles and forced a fumble on 65 snaps in the season opener against Fresno State before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

Last fall, he started the opener against national champion Georgia and had 10 tackles, but then more lower-body injuries popped up and he averaged only about 15 snaps per game the rest of the season. He entered the NCAA transfer portal in early December and committed to Arizona shortly before Oregon’s bowl game against North Carolina.

“I’m blessed to be in Arizona, I just see it as opportunity every day” said Flowe, who said being on the sidelines allowed him to better appreciate the sport. “I just learned to love the game more. You gotta love the game. To play football you gotta love it.”