For the first time since he’s been the defensive coordinator at Arizona, Jeff Casteel has the triple threat at linebacker:
In 2012, his first year at the UA, the Wildcats technically had a depth chart. Instead of a two-deep, it was a not-so-deep.
The UA was forced to start redshirt freshman walk-on Sir Thomas Jackson at weakside linebacker. He started next to Jake Fischer and played opposite Marquis Flowers, who was moved there two weeks prior to the season from safety.
The three backups were a pair of true freshmen, Dakota Conwell and C.J. Dozier, and a sophomore, Hank Hobson, who had eight tackles as a freshman.
Casteel, who also serves as the UA’s linebackers coach, saw his group take a step forward last year when true freshman Scooby Wright emerged. He gave the Wildcats three solid starters. Depth, however, was still an issue.
This year, Arizona not only has depth at linebacker, but also competition.
Wright is a lock to start in the middle.
The two spots next to him are wide open.
Junior Keoni Bush-Loo and sophomores DeAndre’ Miller, Jake Matthews, Derrick Turituri and Cody Ippolito are all competing for time at the two outside spots.
Combined, they’ve played in 66 career games for the Wildcats. Hobson, now a senior, will back up Wright.
It’s a much different situation than in 2012.
“We have a lot of options,” Casteel said. “There’s nothing really settled with those two outside backer spots. Those guys are competing every day. They’ve all done some good things, and they’ve all done some things that are not so great.
“They’re all working hard, and hopefully we can sort that out in the next week to 10 days.”
Miller and Matthews have spent the most time with the first team during training camp. Both worked primarily on special teams last season, but used spring drills and the offseason to improve their stock.
“DeAndre’ Miller is 100 percent better than what he was at this time last year,” Casteel said. “He’s playing with his hands a little bit better. His eyes are better. From a fundamental standpoint, he’s doing a good job.
“Jake Matthews is stronger and bigger than he was last year. He’s doing a good job of getting where he needs to get to.”
Ippolito, who missed last season with a torn ACL, has seen some time with the first team recently. Turituri battled a hamstring injury early in camp, but is healthy now. Bush-Loo, the most experienced of the group has seen time with the first and second groups.
“We’ll sort it all out,” Casteel said. “In a perfect world, we can play six, seven, eight kids. The kids will determine that. Hopefully we can find a solid two-deep.”
The UA doesn’t appear any closer to naming a starting quarterback.
Rodriguez said Thursday morning that the competition at that position is much more of an actual competition than last year, when B.J. Denker ran away with the starting job.
“B.J. was clearly ahead, but he hadn’t done enough to prove he could be the guy, but he was clearly ahead,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, it’s tighter. It truly is. One day you think one guy is going to separate, or two guys are going to separate, and then it doesn’t happen that way. But as long as they’re getting better and making steps. We have about another week of work to see who are the guys we think we can win with.”
The coach said all four “veteran” quarterbacks — Anu Solomon, Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall and Connor Brewer — are still getting reps in practice. It will stay that way for now, but the coach said by the week of the UNLV game, he’ll have it pared down.
The coach hinted Thursday that he might design a specific package or two for one of the quarterbacks.
“We can’t rep four guys (in a) game week,” Rodriguez said. “But we can rep four guys if there are limited packages for a couple guys. In other words, he just runs these eight to 10 plays. Then we can give him those eight to 10 plays and then just move on.”
Praise for freshmen
Quarterbacks Brandon Dawkins and Zach Werlinger aren’t quite ready to join Solomon, Scroggins, Randall and Brewer in the competition, but the freshmen have still managed to impress Rodriguez so far.
Dawkins, a three-star recruit who also had offers from North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Utah, is likely to redshirt this season. Werlinger, a walk-on from Chandler Basha High School, will join him.
“I like Brandon; I like Zach Werlinger, too,” Rodriguez said. “The two freshmen we have are really smart, really conscientious; they’re both going to be really good football players. I like what I’ve seen so far. We’re still giving rookies 10 to 15 minutes of teamwork every day. Those two have shown a good bit to me so far.”
Denker on staff?
Denker has attended UA practices the past three days, and will likely join Rodriguez’s staff in some capacity. The quarterback is likely to serve either as an intern or student assistant. The details are still being worked out.
Denker led the Wildcats to an 8-5 record in 2014, his only season as the starter. Denker threw for 2,516 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran for 949 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. He played professionally in Switzerland earlier this summer, where he helped the Basel Gladiators win a Swiss Bowl championship.