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Full speed ahead for UA

Citizen Staff Writer



Line up the University of Arizona’s starting linebackers and they won’t wow anybody with their appearance.

The Wildcats don’t care.

“They are not going to kill you with their size,” UA coach Mike Stoops said. “They are going to hurt you with their speed and athleticism. That is the strength to their games.”

Xavier Kelley is the smallest of the group, checking in at 5 feet 11, 215 pounds. Fellow seniors Vuna Tuihalamaka and Sterling Lewis are not much bigger. Tuihalamaka is 6 feet 2, 230; Lewis 5 feet 11, 225.

What this group does have is the ability to get to the ball and cover players coming out of the backfield.

“The three linebackers could be three of the best in the Pac-10 without question,” Stoops said. “It is the most athletic and explosive group we have on the field.”

All three played a lot last year, and for Kelley the time couldn’t come soon enough. The senior spent the first two years playing behind future NFL player Spencer Larsen.

Kelley then lost time with a nagging ankle injury suffered in the season opener in 2008.

“I’ve learned to be patient and let the game come to me and use the speed as my best trait,” Kelley said.

There is that speed reference again.

“All good linebackers that I have ever coached had tremendous confidence in themselves and have great instincts,” UA linebacker coach Tim Kish said.

“This group has those things and the fact they are smaller (than most in the Pac-10) does not bother me. They play big.”

The three were impressive in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU. The Cougars’ short passing attack was neutralized, as Kelley had 15 stops by himself.

“By the end of the year he was playing the best as anybody in the group,” Kish said. “We are counting on him to have tremendous production again this year.”

Tuihalamaka didn’t get a start last year but saw plenty of action, making 23 stops, after transferring from El Camino (Calif.) College. Lewis was the leading tackler early in the season after transferring from Blinn (Texas) College.

Tuihalamaka and Lewis are expected to help replace UA’s 2008 leading tackler in Ronnie Palmer and nine-game starter Adrian McCovy.

Palmer was a leader of a defense that had its first winning season in a decade.

Those are big shoes to fill.

“We have guys that have a great deal of passion for the game,” Kish said. “They want to be good and they want to raise their bar every day.”

UA SPRING GAME: 1:30 p.m., April 4 (Fan Fiesta, noon), Arizona Stadium


How UA’s three projected starting linebackers for 2009 fared in 2008:

Xavier Kelley: 51 tackles and three sacks in 12 games, including eight starts

Vuna Tuihalamaka: 23 tackles and 0.5 of a sack in 13 games

Sterling Lewis: 59 tackles and one sack in 10 games, including five starts

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