Man in the middle: Ronnie Palmer
University of Arizona tackling machine Spencer Larsen won’t be forgotten, but the current group of linebackers is trying to make sure he is not missed.
That will be a chore for the players who, except for middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer, have started just one game.
“This is a good group. There will be a lot of intensity – and with a relentless effort,” senior Adrian McCovy said. “We are going to play with no fear.”
Larsen solidified UA’s defense a year ago while leading the Pac-10 with 131 tackles. He is now with the Denver Broncos.
That leaves three-year starter Palmer calling the shots and dictating the action.
“Ronnie brings stability to our defense in the middle. That is a bonus,” UA coach Mike Stoops said. “He has been a great leader and a steady player.”
Collectively the Wildcats may have to make up for Larsen’s production. They hope to do that with a little more raw athletic ability and speed.
Larsen and fellow departed starting linebacker Dane Krogstad brought results, but they did not have a lot of quickness.
Speed is a huge aspect when describing junior Xavier Kelley and McCovy, who along with Palmer lead the depth chart for the Aug. 30 season opener against Idaho.
However, those starting spots are not locked up. Junior college transfers Vuna Tuihalamaka and Sterling Lewis are in the running for immediate playing time as starters or rotation players.
“When you are young you have a tendency to play on the edge more when you are a little unsure. You are excited about being out there,” UA linebacker coach Tim Kish said. “What we have is a group of young kids who are very competitive. You take the field with a group like that, then the sky is the limit.”
Kelley, expected to start at Larsen’s old spot at weakside linebacker, is a lot faster than Larsen and has the ability to defend backs when called upon. Palmer is a hard-hitter who needs to play with more consistency. McCovy has been the highlight-reel guy with a tendency for a big tackle or two.
The pair of transfers spent the spring working out the kinks of the system.
“We have everything we need. We have no complaints,” McCovy said. “We will be fine as long as we execute the game plan.”
No., player Ht., Wt. Cl.
33 Ronnie Palmer 6-3, 245 Sr.
15 Xavier Kelley 5-11, 215 Jr.
25 Adrian McCovy 6-2, 223 Sr.
8 Vuna Tuihalamaka 6-2, 240 Jr.
35 Sterling Lewis 5-11, 225 Jr.
WHAT’S BEING SAID
Arizona assistant coach Tim Kish on his top five linebacking prospects:
Ronnie Palmer: “We have challenged him to raise his bar. He has high expectations for himself. He has to be the lever in the run stopping part of our defense.”
Xavier Kelley: “That kid has been waiting in the wings behind (Spencer Larsen) and is champing at the bit. I think he will be a very productive player for us.”
Adrian McCovy: “We have all seen the big hits with him and the momentum-swinging hits. Those are crowd-pleasers. He will be a coach pleaser when he plays with more knee bend and more consistency.”
Vuna Tuihalamaka: “He is going to compete for playing time both inside and outside. I expect him to be on the field quite a bit.”
Sterling Lewis: “He is a solid football player who needs to show exactly what he can do, and when he does he will help us.”
UA FALL CAMP
Through-Aug. 13, Aug. 17-23: Practice, 6:15-8:30 a.m. Tucson High (Sixth Street and Euclid Avenue) or Rincon Vista complex (Plumer Avenue and 15th Street)
Aug. 14-16: Workouts in Fort Huachuca
Aug. 23: Fan Appreciation Day, scrimmage, 10:30 a.m., Arizona Stadium
Aug. 30: Opener vs. Idaho, 7 p.m., Arizona Stadium