TUCSON, Ariz. — No matter what happened last season – severely injured knee, pain-staking rehabilitation – nothing was going to stop Jake Fischer from playing his junior year at Arizona.
The situation in his knee was far less painful than having to sit and watch his team play, knowing deep down he could have — and would have — helped.
“That’s the toughest thing — to watch your team play and you can’t do anything,” Fischer said as his team prepared for this week’s meeting with Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. “It’s something you have no control over.”
But Fischer returned to the Arizona lineup and has been the cornerstone on defense. He led the team in tackles with 68, including 6.5 tackles for loss. He picked up three fumbles and was the Wildcats’ steadiest force in an area in which stability was desperately needed.
“He’s had a really good year,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s been the glue to our defense.”
And the leader. Fischer has embraced the role, not only on the field but off it, too. He was the media’s go-to guy for a quick sound bite or quote.
“You should want to be a leader,” he said. “I learned from a couple of (teammates) in Earl Mitchell and Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and a few others. There’s a huge list.
“There are a lot of guys I got to watch to see how they led the defense and see how they did their thing. I’ve molded my own (way) out of that.”
Fischer has been UA’s sweeping force at the linebacker position, playing undersized at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds. He’s played banged-up and beat-up. He kind of even had a slight smirk when a reporter asked if he had played hurt throughout the season. It was like, “What kind of question is that?” Of course he played hurt.
“Going against someone who is 100 pounds heavier than you every play — that’s the big thing,” he said of playing middle linebacker. “We’re just trying to keep the strength up. … There have been a couple of teams (where) they just run at you and try to head-butt the crap out of you.”
He may give up something in size but gives up nothing in heart.
“Jake has been the guy who has held them together,” Rodriguez said. “We crossed our fingers every time Jake went down. Now, all of a sudden, luckily, he made it this far.”
It was usually the defense that was Arizona’s undoing this year, failing to stop opponents late in games. Three times this season, the defense couldn’t come through with a big play when needed, eventually leading to defeat — losses to Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State come to mind.
“There are a lot of things we can learn; I’ll say that,” said Fischer, a product of Tucson’s Ironowood Ridge High. “It’s hard being out there so long. I think what we need to improve upon most is our third-down efficiency.
“If we stop people on even 50 percent of the third downs in some games, we’d decrease our plays by 25 plays. We kind of messed that up on our own.
“Our offense did great keeping us in some of the games when we didn’t play as well. Thank goodness for our offense. The thing is, we’re young. We’re going to learn. When you watch the games, it’s not that we were doing stuff wrong, it was just one flaw in our technique that ruined the whole play.”
The defense will have one more chance to prove itself this weekend in Albuquerque against Nevada, which finished the regular season 11th in total offense and 20th in scoring offense. Running back Stepfon Jefferson sits just behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, in second place nationally, with 141 rushing yards per game.
It will be a significant test, especially for a defense that has had to play a bit vanilla in part because it isn’t that deep in personnel.
“Yeah, we have been playing vanilla,” he said. “And then some of these teams, like an Oregon or a Nevada, they try to run so many different things at you and they tempo you — if you try to throw in more stuff, you’re going to get screwed up. They’re going to drive down and you’re going to be wondering what hit you.”
Kind of like getting hit by an undersized middle linebacker from UA.