Needing help and experience at linebacker, the Arizona Wildcats have received a commitment from the player who will be the nation’s top returning tackler.
Akron’s Brian Wagner, who has one season to play and is immediately eligible as a graduate student, told the UA coaches Sunday morning that he is coming to Tucson, hoping to start classes Wednesday for the spring semester.
“There is a need for a one-year guy to come in and help the team,” Wagner told TucsonCitizen.com.
Wagner made 147 tackles in 11 games last season, an average of 13.36 per game, which was second in the nation to Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, who is turning pro.
“That’s kind of cool,” Wagner said of being the nation’s top returning tackler. “But stats don’t mean anything. I’m just excited to get to Arizona and help the team win next year.”
He played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at Akron. Exactly where he fits into Arizona’s scheme is to be determined, Wagner said, with the Cats presumably running a 3-3-5, no matter who coach Rich Rodriguez eventually brings in as defensive coordinator.
Wagner said secondary coach Tony Gibson — the only defensive assistant on staff right now — explained that Wagner could fit into any of the three linebacker positions. Elsewhere at linebacker, Arizona has Jake Fischer coming back from an ACL injury, plus sophomores-to-be Rob Hankins and Hank Hobson.
The only other scholarship linebacker is David Lopez, who played sparingly last season after his summer transfer from junior college. That lack of depth and experience makes Wagner’s commitment likely the most significant of Rodriguez’s first recruiting class in terms of immediate impact.
“The (Arizona) coaches believed in me,” Wagner said.
Wagner, who plans to study Statistics as a grad student, returned to Akron on Saturday from a recruiting trip to Arizona. His player host was senior center Kyle Quinn.
“It was awesome,” Wagner said of his trip.
“You don’t get weather like that out here in Ohio. Sunny and 70 on Jan. 6 … that’s kind of crazy to me.”
Wagner, 6-foot and 235 pounds, said he heard plenty about Arizona from a couple of his coaches at Akron — linebackers coach Charlie Camp and graduate assistant Tony Bouie, both former Wildcats.
“They loved their experience at Arizona,” Wagner said. “They were jealous when they knew I was coming on a visit.”
Bouie and Camp were let go from Akron when head coach Rob Ianello, a former Arizona assistant, was fired.
Bouie told TucsonCitizen.com earlier this week that Wagner reminds him of his former Arizona teammate Brant Boyer, a tough-as-nails player from the Desert Swarm days of the early 1990s.
“Brian is more low-key than Boyer off the field, but they have the same physical features, the same intensity and the same run-through-a-brick-wall mentality,” Bouie said.
“I’m pretty sure Brian will play at the next level, just like Brant did.”
Wagner, from Springfield, Ohio, earned first-team All-MAC honors this season, when he made 15 tackles in the season-opener at Ohio State. Wagner had 130 tackles as a sophomore in 2010 and 132 stops as a redshirt freshman.
“He’s a machine,” Bouie said. “He can do it in the Pac-12, not just the MAC.”