Here is the eighth part of our Arizona Wildcats football preview in collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic.
We write the words, and they have taken the cool photographs and put it all together in a slick presentation at azcentral.com.
Check back here and at azcentral.com every Friday as we roll out more of our preview every week, all the way into August.
This week: The linebackers.
It has been an offseason of attrition at linebacker, but Arizona’s two leading linebackers — seniors Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls — return.
Backups R.J. Young and Trevor Erno left the program, starting linebacker Jake Fischer suffered a torn ACL in the spring game, and there was an academic casualty. That left Vassallo and Earls as the only scholarship linebackers before freshman reinforcements arrive for camp in early August.
“We can’t stop because some people quit or someone went down,” Earls said.
If Vassallo and Earls stay healthy, then this will be a position of strength for the Wildcats, who use just two linebackers the majority of the time, relying more on their nickel package.
But the newcomers, led by freshman Rob Hankins, will have to play some right away — and be ready to play a lot.
Vassallo has been one of coach Mike Stoops’ best junior college finds, leading the Wildcats in tackles last season with 102 and earning honorable mention all-conference honors.
More than that, he became a leader on the defense in his first season in the program.
“Paul is a very outspoken man,” linebacker Derek Earls said last year. “Paul gets offensive really easily. It’s pretty funny. He is usually the first one to go off.”
Said Vassallo: “I like it when things are done the right way, so when things aren’t going as smooth, it kind of frustrates me at times. So then I will say something.”
Vassallo was the first Arizona player to reach triple digits in tackles since Spencer Larsen in 2007.
Earls, following a successful debut season as a junior college transfer in 2010, brings toughness and savvy to the middle linebacker position. He made 44 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, last season.
He and fellow starting linebacker Paul Vassallo became roommates and fast friends after each arrived at UA for the 2010 spring semester. That chemistry should only be better on the field in their second seasons.
“In the first year, we were a little bit hesitant, trying to make sure we were in the right spot. We really weren’t going 100 percent sometimes because we didn’t want to not be in the right spot,” Earls said.
“But now that we know what our defense is doing, we’re not thinking as much and we can fly around.”
Coach Mike Stoops says that Fischer was showing signs of becoming a potential impact player in the spring, when the junior suffered a torn ACL late in the final scrimmage.
Fischer’s status figures to be updated when Arizona begins camp, but a mid-season return seems to be the most optimistic outlook. Fischer has a redshirt season available.
Fischer, from Oro Valley’s Ironwood Ridge High School, played mostly on special teams as a true freshman before becoming a starter last season. His spot was often replaced by the nickel back, but Fischer saw ample time and made 58 tackles, including 7.5 for loss.
That kind of production put to rest concerns that his height (5-foot-11) would be a detriment.
Muhammed played on special teams last season after making the team as a walk-on from El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif. Given the Wildcats’ attrition at the position, he’s in line for key time at linebacker if he can continue to build off a good spring.
His year of experience in the program will help as he tries to hold off freshman newcomers Rob Hankins, Hank Hobson and Domonique Petties (who is working through some NCAA Clearinghouse issues).
Another possibility is SirThomas Jackson, who, according to various reports, is expected to arrive as a walk-on this fall. He was an all-state defensive end at Seattle O’Dea High School, projecting as an outside linebacker in college.