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Arizona football: Earning scholarship just the beginning for Sir Thomas Jackson

Sir Thomas Jackson made 58 tackles as a redshirt freshman. Photo by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Sir Thomas Jackson made 58 tackles as a redshirt freshman. Photo by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Three days after Arizona’s final spring scrimmage, Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez summoned walk-on linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson into his office for a player evaluation.

Without warning, without fanfare, RichRod opened the conversation with this:

Sir T., we’re putting you on scholarship.

“I can honestly say, that was the best feeling in my life,” said Jackson, who started all but one game last season at outside linebacker.

“On Signing Day (in 2011), that was the worst feeling in my life, when I didn’t get a scholarship. I didn’t want to go to school that day, to be honest. I felt so ashamed of myself. I felt like I let everybody down — my family, all my relatives.”

The first thing he did after that spring meeting with Rodriguez was call his parents.

“I think my dad teared up,” he said.

Jackson, a redshirt sophomore from Seattle, didn’t stop listening after Rodriguez delivered the good news. The bulk of the evaluation was still to come. One of the coach’s directives was for Sir T. to gain weight. He’s up about 20 pounds, now at 6-foot, 225.

“I’m trying to answer the call,” he said.

Just about everything you need to know about Arizona’s overwhelmed defense in 2012 can be summed up like this: Thomas, as a 205-pound walk-on, often had to play close to 100 snaps a game. That exemplified the storyline. Too many young, undersized guys playing too many snaps.

“That’s too much,” Jackson said of the 100-snap games. “That’s a lot of snaps. That’s wear and tear, especially going against 300-pound linemen.”

Rodriguez has more options at linebacker this season. Seniors Jake Fischer (at middle linebacker) and Marquis Flowers on the outside will retain starting roles, but perhaps will get some breaks during games. Jackson is competing to hold on to his starting job. He made 58 tackles last season, tied for fifth on the team.

Options at linebacker include junior Hank Hobson, injured much of last season, sophomores Dakota Conwell and C.J. Dozier, and true freshmen Derrick Turituri, DeAndre Miller and Scooby Wright.

“A lot better than last year,” Rodriguez said of this season’s linebacker depth.

“In 20-some years of coaching, I had never been that thin at linebacker. The depth is mostly freshmen and younger guys, but we certainly have a little more size and a little more ability to play more people there.”

The linebackers need to be playmakers in coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense, and the defense, overall, is expected to be more aggressive, more attacking, in the second year in the system. Between learning a new scheme and the lack of depth last season, the Wildcats often stayed vanilla on defense, merely trying to hang on.

Casteel will be better equipped this time around to disguise looks and release the hounds.

“We’re more comfortable with each other,” Jackson said of the linebackers being in the second season of this system.

“There’s more communication. In a sense, we felt lost out there in the first year. We were all just trying to learn on the fly. The playbook was really small, but now he’s opening it up for us. Now, it’s like, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing or else you’re going to be taken out.’”

Jackson has reached one checkpoint — the football scholarship. He arrived on campus on a partial academic scholarship, but, like so many, already has piled up some student loans.

“I have to start thinking about paying it back,” he said.

The next checkpoint is to become more than just an Arizona feel-good story.

“I have to make my name known around the Pac-12 and the country,” he said.

“The scholarship was good, but I have a larger vision in my life. That took a lot of weight off my shoulders, though. I don’t have to think about it anymore. But I feel I have more responsibility now.

“I feel I have to reward Coach for putting me on scholarship.”

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