- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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After missing all of the 2011 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer returns to the lineup for the Wildcats after fully participating in spring ball. He took some time to chat about the injury, the influence of new coach Rich Rodriguez and some of the goals for Arizona's defense in 2012.
Which is tougher to come back from with a torn ACL, the physical or the mental aspect?
Jake Fischer: At first it's the physical aspect. There is a point in time where it feels great but they tell you not to go overboard. So you kind of get it in the back of your head you need to slow down even though you haven't been on the field and you want to get back out there. But for the most part, it's the mental aspect. Getting through spring helped out a lot. I'm full go and 100 percent committed to playing my best every game. The mental aspect is gone since I made it through spring.
What was that first hit like? The first time someone landed on it or the first time it got knocked around?
JF: It's kind of weird. You're thinking about it the first time you go out. But after you get that first hit, you realize you have that strength to pack a punch. And after hitting someone, it's kind of motivating to go back and hit them harder because you realize it feels great. You go in nervous, but after that first hit everything goes away.
What was the most frustrating part of being on the sidelines? Was there one thing in particular that gnawed at you?
JF: Watching what we went through last year -- there were so many injuries and so many things that didn't go our way. When you look at the first five or six games, there were times when we were beating the other team -- starting with Oklahoma State and USC. There were times we played with those teams and those are some of the best teams in the country. And then there were times when we had a lot of mental lapses. We had a lot of young guys. I saw our team grow up. It sucked at first because everybody was disappointed in how we were playing and we had high expectations going into the season. But I saw a lot of guys grow up and a lot of guys coming back, I saw them turn it up. No one took a step back, they took a step forward. I hated that I couldn't be out there fighting with them.
How's the transition going to a 3-3-5?
JF: The first part of spring, there was a lot of learning. There were a couple of practices where we had to work more on the base defense. We took it a little slow for some portions, but we're transitioning well. Everything isn't completely new. You have some of the same coverages and blitzes, there are just different names. We were playing more of a pro-style defense, I guess you could say. Just a base 4-3. I like this a lot. Changing it up is pretty cool. You're doing something new and I like that we can fly around. The coaches emphasize getting to the ball and playing as one. I like that.
You can get some crazy blitzes out of the 3-3-5.
JF: That's what I love about it. It's such a unique defense. There are a lot of teams that won't be able to adjust to it as much as they'd like because they're used to going against the standard 4-3 or 3-4. You can mess with the offense with this defense and I really like that. I like watching the old West Virginia film and imagining myself and my teammates out there. I see that we can be doing the same things. But there is a lot of Xs and Os that we need to get better at. But by the end of spring, we showed some big strides.
Brian Urlacher was a safety in the 3-3-5. Any lobbying from you to jump back there?
JF: I know, that's nuts. But right now we're a little thin at linebacker so there's no way.
What are some of the things you guys want to accomplish as a defense?
JF: We just want to keep our team in games. If it's a low-scoring game, we don't want to be the team that breaks first. If it's against a team like USC, we need to limit the big plays. We need to make them make the mistake. We can't give up the big pass. If they are driving on us, the more plays they have, the more chances they have to make a mistake. We have to limit the mistakes against the high-octane offenses and be tough against the run.
You guys finished the year with back-to-back wins. Is there some confidence despite the turnover?
JF: A lot of the guys still on the team, you could see there was a swagger going into spring. There is a lot more mental toughness. The coaching staff really instills mental toughness. Our strength and conditioning staff is working us over. We're getting stronger and more explosive. We're in way better shape. You can tell there is a big difference from last year to this year.
To start spring, coach Rodriguez pretty much called out the entire team and said you guys are weak. That's got to put a little dent in the ego. How did most guys respond to that?
JF: None of us deserved to have a big ego. It's not like we were in the Rose Bowl or anything. We know we have to improve and work harder. We took it personally and we came together and said we need to work hard. We want to get to that Rose Bowl. The leaders of our team, myself being one of them, we're trying to get the younger guys to rally. We have a lot of guys who are great leaders and you can see the team transforming. It's pretty cool to watch.