2006 Football Outlook - Linebackers
Head coach Mike Stoops says one feature of Arizona's defense should have more of an impact in 2006 than it did in his first two seasons -- and that's the linebacking corps.
The unit was decimated by injuries and the young mainstays identified after a good spring -- sophomores Dane Krogtad and Spencer Larsen, and redshirt freshman Ronnie Palmer -- never played side by side, much less started, until a few moments in the final game of the year when Krogstad was still hobbled but managed.
Larsen missed the first two games after recovering from a spring knee injury, got banged up in game three and missed two more starts. Palmer was hurt in fall camp and missed the first five games. Krogstad started two games, missed another, started two more, then missed five games until the ASU contest.
Not the continuity one likes, and a situation that put tremendous pressure on the UA secondary as well as on a young front that also was experiencing trouble in the form of injuries.
It made the aforementioned play behind that unit -- in the defensive backfield -- an overly key part of defensive success. It also forced UA to build some depth, playing John McKinney, Akin Akinniyi, Sean Jones and Marcus Hollingsworth as a nickel back much of 2005, in combinations with the top guys. Those four turned in some fine efforts like McKinney's five tackles at USC, Akinniyi's seven against Purdue and Jones' nine at Utah. Hollingsworth ended up the team's No. 6 tackler with 41 total. True freshman Adrian McCovy played in all 11 games, primarily on special teams, and added seven hits. All but Jones are back.
Hollingsworth McKinney McCovy Akinniyi Alford
In his eight contests last year, Larsen had 51 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. In six games as the middle 'backer Palmer finished with 38 and 2.0. In five games Krogstad pitched in 38 and 4.0. They never got settled into a groove where they belonged. Get those guys in good health at full speed, extrapolate to a full season, and you get about 80 tackles each from your linebackers -- a great way to improve success by making earlier hits than the safeties and corners who end up making the plays deeper downfield.
Stoops has shown he is a guy who "recruits to needs," and the Class of 2006 arrives in fall with a lone freshman tabbed to learn the linebacking trade. That speaks volumes about the players already in the program. UA has some strong confidence in their ability and talent, and looks forward to putting some headlines in the thick of things.
"We started maybe four or five groups of linebackers and really never got good continuity in the second level of our defense," Stoops said. "Having those three guys (and some younger players) back is going to help. I don't think we ever saw the true linebacking corps (in 2005) that we're capable of having."
The Cats should emerge from spring with a better grip on the pecking order for play, although Stoops and staff don't mess with substitutions for the sake of it. If you're good enough to be the No. 1 guy, you better be conditioned enough to play 75 snaps.
Guys like sophomore James Alford and redshirt freshman Xavier Kelley can sharpen their teeth on special teams and help McKinney, Hollingsworth, McCovy and Akinniyi push the starters.
'Backer Bits... 2005 Linebacker Starts: Larsen-7, Hollingsworth-7 (nickel), Palmer-5, McKinney-5, Krogstad-4, Jones-4, Akinniyi-1... Palmer was honorable mention Freshman All-America by The Sporting News in his shortened '05 season... Alford lettered on special teams and made four tackles... Brooks Reed of Tucson Sabino High is the '06 two-way incoming freshman likely to get a test at linebacker in his first camp... Linebackers coach Tim Kish was named a national Top 25 recruiter for the second straight year... Former UA linebacker Marcus Bell (1996-99), first-team all-league in '98, has been at practice and may help out while working to get back into pro football after three years with Seattle and Houston since graduation... Three-time All-Pac-10 Wildcat linebacker Lance Briggs became Arizona's sixth All-Pro selection last year. He, Michael Bates (5), Chris McAlister (2), Darryll Lewis, Tedy Bruschi and Chuck Cecil have played in the Pro Bowl a total of 11 times... Former UA linebacker (1980-83) and College Hall of Fame member Ricky Hunley, a two-time Super Bowl starter for the Denver Broncos, is in his third year as linebackers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals...