Pac-12: Brian Wagner

Arizona misses Washington State and Cal on the 2012 schedule, which means the Wildcats dodge top-tier wide receivers Marquess Wilson and Keenan Allen. Still, new Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel isn't exactly breathing a sigh of relief. He still has to prep for USC's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods and Oregon State's Markus Wheaton.

"Wide receivers are everywhere," said Casteel, who joins Rich Rodriguez's staff from West Virginia. "That's a problem. I'm having trouble sleeping in the desert thinking about all of the guys we're going to have to face this fall.

"There is so much talent in the conference and they are all well-coached. You go from Oregon running up-tempo to Stanford grinding it out. You really see the full gambit."

It's been a hectic spring for Casteel trying to get his new team up to speed on his 3-3-5 defense. Things got a little tougher when 1) defensive back Adam Hall was lost for the year with a knee injury in the spring -- his second ACL tear in as many years -- and 2) last week linebacker Brian Wagner, a transfer from Akron and projected starter, decided to give up football, leaving the Wildcats especially thin at linebacker.

"That definitely put a dent in us," Casteel said of Wagner's departure. "Brian was a good kid and it just didn't work out for him. His situation was he came from Akron and that's a long way from home. It's tough to see him go."

That leaves Casteel re-arranging the deck. It could mean one of Arizona's big-bodied safeties -- makes a move to linebacker. Plus most 3-3-5s usually have a hybrid linebacker-safety. That could be the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Marquis Flowers. Or he could move C.J. Dozier or Rob Hankins or Hank Hobson.

"We're looking at a lot of different options," said Casteel, who also coaches the linebackers. "There are some safeties that could play in the box. We're talking about moving some kids around and we'll have some new guys coming in and there is some talent there and they'll get a chance to prove themselves also."

In the meantime, he said he'll lean heavily on middle linebacker Jake Fischer -- who is coming off of a knee injury that kept him on the sidelines all of last year.

"He's a leader and he's our bell cow going into the season."

Despite the holes, Casteel is happy to report the transition to the new scheme is going fairly well. He admits it's going to take some time for them to get comfortable, but there are some universal truths he's hoping his players can fall back on regardless of the scheme.

"Football is football," he said. "A little more gets made (of the 3-3-5) than there really is. It's not much different. It's an odd front, but it's still about getting off blocks and staying square and using your hands and getting people on the ground. Those are the things you focus on. If you are a good fundamentals team, you'll have a chance for success.

"We've only had 15 practices with them and they are still learning and we're all feeling our way around. But they had a good spring. They got better from the first day to the last day, which is good. I'm anxious to get with them and see how much they've retained. Hopefully they'll make some strides in the first couple of weeks in practice."

Arizona down two linebackers

June, 18, 2012
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Some tough news coming out of Arizona late last week when coach Rich Rodriguez confirmed a report that projected starting linebacker Brian Wagner was leaving the program.

Anthony Gimino of TucsonCitizen.com first reported the story.
“I don’t have love for the game anymore. I told coach that, and that was it. It was something I was thinking about for a long time. That’s kind of where I’m at right now ... I think I'm done with football."

Rodriguez later confirmed Wagner's departure with a text.
"He just decided not to play football anymore.”

Wagner, a transfer from Akron who worked mostly with the first team during spring drills, was one of the nation's best tacklers last season, notching 147 stops.

As the Wildcats move to a 3-3-5 defense, they were already light at the linebacker spot. The news was compounded with the confirmation that backup linebacker David Lopez has also left the program.

Rob Hankins, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound sophomore, likely moves into a starting role -- at least for now -- alongside Jake Fischer and Hank Hobson.

Fischer, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, represents the bulk of Arizona's linebacking experience. In a Q&A a couple of weeks ago, Fischer half-heartedly joked that Arizona was thin at linebacker. It just got a lot thinner. (Billy Halleck one-liners welcomed).

Top Pac-12 newcomers

April, 3, 2012
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Most Pac-12 teams will have new faces on hand this spring -- early-entry high school or JC players or transfers -- who are expected to provide immediate help, if not win starting jobs.

Here are seven we expect to make a mark in 2012 (feel free to comment on how you can't believe we left out so-and-so).

LB Brian Wagner, Arizona: Wagner was prolific tackler at Akron, collecting at least 100 stops in three years as a starter and earning All-MAC honors in two out of his three seasons with the Zips. He might not have top-flight Pac-12 speed, but the Wildcats are fairly desperate at linebacker.

QB Connor Wood, Colorado: Wood, a Texas transfer, was expected to win the job even before Nick Hirschman re-injured his foot. But with Hirschman out, it's Wood's offense -- at least for the spring. In the fall, Jordan Webb, a two-year starter at Kansas with two years of eligibility remaining, is expected to join the fray.

DE Arik Armstead, Oregon: The true freshman arrives in Eugene this spring after one of the more closely watched recruiting sagas on the West Coast. While more than a few folks believe the 6-foot-8, 280 pounder is a prototypical left OFFENSIVE tackle, he's going to at least start off on defense at Oregon. He's athletic enough to play end, and could immediately be in the picture to replace the departed Terrell Turner.

TE Caleb Smith, Oregon State: The Beavers use both a tight end and an H-back, and Smith, a touted recruit from Kentridge High School in Renton, Wash., looks like a good candidate to replace departed -- and productive -- H-back Joe Halahuni. He could challenge sophomore Connor Hamlett, the backup tight end in 2011, for the starting job.

DE Brandon Willis, UCLA: Willis' wanderlust has been almost comical -- he's transferred between UCLA and North Carolina twice -- but he was once a touted recruit and could compete for immediate playing time on an experienced but underachieving Bruins D-line.

RB Kelvin York, Utah: York, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound transfer out of Fullerton College, picked the Utes over a host of suitors. At the very least will be Robin to John White's Batman. It's also possible they could be 1A and 1B, almost splitting carries equally.

RB/WR Antavius Sims, Washington: Sims is a JC transfer who signed with the Huskies in 2011 but didn't qualify academically. He was expected to play cornerback, but has been shifted to offense so he can use his speed both as a runner and receiver.

Pac-12's most intriguing players this spring

March, 22, 2012
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There are plenty of stars back in the Pac-12 this spring. And there are plenty of interesting competition and young guys about to break through.

But here's a team-by-team list of the Pac-12's most intriguing players this spring. These are guys who could be ready to emerge, redeem themselves or are simply critical for their team's success.

Arizona: LB Brian Wagner
The senior transfer was a tackling machine at Akron and he's likely to start for a rebuilding Wildcats defense. But can he keep up with Pac-12 offensive skill?

Arizona State: QB Michael Eubank
The redshirt freshman was recruited by new Sun Devils coach Todd Graham when Graham was at Pittsburgh, so Graham obviously believes Eubank has what it takes to run his no-huddle, spread offense. Impressive athlete.

California: WR Maurice Harris
The redshirt freshman is the top candidate to become the No. 2 receiver behind All-American candidate Keenan Allen.

Colorado: OT Stephane Nembot
Recruited as a defensive end, the redshirt freshman has an NFL frame -- 6-foot-8, 310 pounds -- and tons of athletic ability. He's green, but that might not stop him from earning a starting spot.

Oregon: WRs Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley and Tacoi Sumler
All three are redshirt freshmen. All three were touted recruits. At least one needs to step up at a position that is questionable for the Ducks.

Oregon State: OT Michael Philipp
Philipp was a touted recruit -- everybody in the Pac-12 wanted him -- and he won the starting left tackle spot as a true freshman in 2009, earning Freshman All-American honors. But, in large part due to injuries, his career has regressed. Will he take a step forward this spring? It would be huge for the Beavers if he did.

Stanford: CB Wayne Lyons
While coach David Shaw said Lyons was only about "85 percent" during the Cardinal's first of two spring sessions due to his on-going recovery from the broken foot that ruined his freshman season, Shaw also said he believes Lyons is a future All-American.

UCLA: QB Brett Hundley
While Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut both are back with significant starting experience, it wouldn't be surprising if Hundley, a redshirt freshman, won the starting job. Or at least earned playing time next fall.

USC: LB/RB Tre Madden
Madden is a beastly good athlete who is going to play on one side of the ball or the other. Maybe both. He backed up Dion Bailey at strongside LB last year, but the 6-foot, 220-pounder may end up bolstering the backfield depth.

Utah: DE Thretton Palamo
Palamo flashed potential in the running back competition last preseason, but that same athletic ability might make the 6-foot-2, 250 pounder a dangerous pass-rusher. No question about ability to tackle, seeing that he's a former rugby star.

Washington: DT Danny Shelton
The 6-1, 334-pound sophomore looks like a nice fit at nose tackle if the Huskies move to a base 3-4 with new D-coordinator Justin Wilcox. But whatever the defense is, Shelton showed signs during his true freshman season that he can be an All-Pac-12 defensive lineman.

Washington State: DE/OLB Travis Long
Long is a three-year starter at defensive end, and during that span has mostly been the Cougars' best defensive player. It's interesting, however, because new coach Mike Leach said he's intrigued with Long playing outside linebacker in a new 3-4 scheme. Can the 6-foot-4, 256-pounder make that transition work?
With the transfer of the nation's second leading tackler, Arizona's glaring need at linebacker just got a boost.

Akron linebacker Brian Wagner will enroll at Arizona this week and will be immediately eligible due to an NCAA rule that allows athletes pursuing graduate degrees not offered at the former school to play right away.

Wagner, 22, averaged 13.36 tackles per game in 2011, and considering top tackler Luke Kuechly of Boston College is off to the NFL, Wagner will be the top returning tackler in FBS football.

Wagner, who earned first-team All-MAC honors, is taking advantage of the same transfer rule that was used by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.

Why is this a big get for Arizona? Because its top two tacklers, Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are graduating, and the Wildcats' top two returning linebackers -- sophomores Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins -- combined for four starts and 18 tackles last season, in large part due to the Wildcats using a base nickel formation much of the season. But when you toss in 2010 starter Jake Fischer, who is coming back from an ACL injury, you have four experienced guys for three spots.

And, yes, you can essentially pencil Wagner, 6-foot, 235 pounds, into the starting lineup.

From the Tucson Citizen:

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.


As for that defensive coordinator, nothing yet -- I found this to be an interesting narrative on back-and-forth with West Virginia DC Jeff Casteel. Speculation that Penn State also might be a player with Casteel raised one of my eyebrows, though Casteel's 3-3-5 doesn't sound like a Penn State defense.

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