Arizona’s unproven LBs facing trial by fire

TUCSON – It’s perhaps Arizona’s most troubling position: the linebacker spot.

It’s almost to the point that when coach Rich Rodriguez hears a question about the thinness at the position, he gives an automatic smirk/smile and says “tell me about it.’’

But it’s not as if the Wildcats can play without linebackers, so what’s a coach to do? Move pieces around, coach them up and hope that it’ll all work out. It’s like pieces to a puzzle that might be never ending.

Just last week, with the opener against Toledo looming on Sept. 1, Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said the Wildcats were “still looking for people’’ and had “repped a lot of guys to narrow it down.’’

Rodriguez’s latest move has been to put safety Marquis Flowers, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound safety, at outside linebacker.
“We’ve gotten faster moving Marquis there,’’ Rodriguez said.

In Casteel’s defense, speed gets the job done. Or at least he and Rodriguez hope so.

The move is just another move in the growing line of position switches from offense to defense.

Rodriguez discussed it last week.

“Marquis is a team guy. He knows football. I’m excited to watch him,’’ Rodriguez said. “We need to get a lot of things on defense — we need to get faster and bigger, and he certainly makes us faster.”

Stability would help, too. Senior Jake Fischer provides some of that, although he, too, has moved, going from outside linebacker to the inside spot with the addition of Flowers.

One bright spot is sophomore Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who came on the scene last year and hasn’t disappointed in a linebacker/safety hybrid position. He and Fischer will be the centerpieces of UA’s group, which is very much a work in progress and transformation.

The other experienced linebackers are sophomores Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins, although Hankins has missed much of the camp with a concussion.  

“We’re not only thin, but we’re inexperienced,’’ Fischer said last week. “We need to mature a lot faster than you’d typically want.’’

Among those for whom that description applies are walk-on Shadow Williams, freshmen freshman Keoni Bush-Loo, Dakota Conwell and C.J. Dozier, and senior Greg Nwoko, who has spent his entire UA career at running back.

To open the season, the starting lineup is likely to see Hobson and Flowers flanking Fischer, with Bondurant as the rover. williams and Bush-Loo should be among the top reserves.

“We’re going to need to get some important game experience to get a grasp of things,’’ Fischer said. “I’m trying to help them along, as well. But the game experience will help them get more of an understanding of what we do.’’

Therein lies the problem. The only way to get the crucial game experience will be trial by fire — starting Saturday night against Toledo.

Casteel said he’s hoping to have as many as “six, seven, eight guys’’ who can fill in the spots..

“That’s just what (has to happen),’’ he said. “But you come to play, so the kids are excited.’’

Ready or not.