Rob Hankins' promotion to first string sparked a mini-celebration in his hometown of Dallas and made news at his old high school.

In Tucson, the Arizona Wildcats' freshman linebacker still treats the news as temporary.

"Coach's decision can change at any point in the middle of practice, after practice, any day," he said. "I have to come out here, and every day is just like game day."

When game day arrives Saturday against Northern Arizona, however, Hankins will be in elite company.

Hankins, 18, will become just the third true freshman in the Mike Stoops era to start a season opener. Cornerback Antoine Cason started all 11 games in 2004, and Rob Gronkowski started his first opener - and eight other games - in 2007. Both were high draft picks who are still playing in the NFL.

Only 11 other true freshmen have started for Wildcats at any point in the season since 2004.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound Hankins "has a chance to be an excellent football player," Stoops said, though his playing time will vary week to week depending on Arizona's scheme and how backup David Lopez progresses.

Arizona will start three linebackers - Hankins in the middle, Derek Earls on the strong side and Paul Vassallo on the weak side - against NAU and other teams that run "heavy" offensive formations, lineups that include two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback.

The Wildcats will use a nickel defense against spread teams, a group that includes next week's opponent, Oklahoma State, and conference rivals Oregon and Arizona State. Nickel back Jourdon Grandon will replace Hankins in the starting lineup, giving the UA extra speed and athleticism that can pay off in pass coverage.

The run-stuffing Hankins registered 126 tackles and seven sacks and forced six fumbles as a senior at Dallas Episcopal High School.

"He definitely loves to play the run," Vassallo said.

Cornerback Shaquille Richardson said Hankins "can definitely play."

"He's great at throwing linemen out of the way," he said. "He sheds blocks the best on the team."

Now, Hankins must shed a stigma about freshmen. Wildcats coaches play just a handful of newcomers every year, and most of them are on special teams.

Hankins will play middle linebacker until Jake Fischer, the team's starter in 2010, is fully healed from offseason knee surgery. Fischer is expected to be ready sometime in October, leaving Hankins anywhere from four to six weeks to impress his coaches.

So far, Hankins is doing a lot of the right things for a freshman.

"Rob's asking a lot of questions. He's eager to learn, and that's the best thing," Vassallo said. "He knows he's a freshman and he hasn't been here. He's got some work to do, but he's willing to do it. That's what's encouraging."

On StarNet: Chat live with UA football reporter Ryan Finley today at noon:

first day of work

Linebacker Rob Hankins will open his college career with a start Saturday, putting him in elite company. Just 11 other true freshmen have started games in the Mike Stoops era:

• 2004: WR B.J. Dennard (two games), DB Antoine Cason (11 games)

• 2005: WR Mike Thomas (four games), QB Willie Tuitama (four games), DE Mike Shelton (one game)

• 2006: FB Earl Mitchell (seven games), WR Terrell Turner (one game)

• 2007: TE Rob Gronkowski (nine games), RB Nicolas Grigsby (eight games)

• 2008: WR Juron Criner (two games)

• 2009: None

• 2010: DB Shaquille Richardson (two games)

NOTE: Cason and Gronkowski are the only true freshmen to start their season-openers.

Up next

• What: NAU at Arizona

• Where: 7 p.m. Saturday

• TV; radio: FSAZ, Ch. 58 (Cable Ch. 8); 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Sp)