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Departures leave Arizona thin at linebacker this spring

Jake Fischer (left) and Paul Vassallo are two of Arizona's three returning starting linebackers.
Photo by Chris Morrision-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats depth chart at linebacker has taken a hit, as sophomore R.J. Young and redshirt freshman Trevor Erno have left the team.

“We’re working with five linebackers right now,” coach Mike Stoops said after Wednesday’s practice. “Yeah, we’re thin.”

The three starters return — 2010 leading tackler Paul Vassallo, Derek Earls and Jake Fischer. The backups for now are freshman Kyle Benson, a Tempe Corona del Sol graduate who redshirted last season, and senior Bilal Muhammed, who walked-on to the team last August.

The good news?

“We’re two-deep with our nickel package,” Stoops said.

Given the kind of spread offenses Arizona sees, the Wildcats lean heavily on that package of five defensive backs. Stoops estimated that his defense used a two-linebacker lineup about 75 percent of the time last season.

The Wildcats do seem flush with talented defensive backs for their nickel package.

But there doesn’t seem to be much margin of error at linebacker, which means there will be ample opportunity in the fall for a trio of incoming freshmen — Rob Hankins, Hank Hobson and Domonique Petties. This class of linebackers was one of the strengths of the most recent recruiting class.

“All three of those young guys will have to come in and play,” Stoops said.

Erno, from Lakewood (Calif.) High School, was one of Arizona’s top recruits in 2009. He was one of three four-star recruits, as rated by Rivals.com, who signed with the Wildcats.

The others were safety Adam Hall, who already has established himself as a key player, and running back Daniel Jenkins, who has a bigger opportunity this spring because of the knee injury to Greg Nwoko.

Erno redshirted in 2009 and mostly played on special teams last season, when he was credited with one tackle. Young had 19 tackles as the primary backup at linebacker.

Here is a spring depth chart from Arizona’s official site.

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