Brian Wagner spends his days taking graduate-level courses in biostatistics, a field of study that's just as complex - and tedious - as it sounds.
"It's hard to explain," the Arizona Wildcats' new linebacker said. "Think about diseases and how they spread. When you read an article in the paper that says, 'If you do this, you'll increase your chances of getting a disease by, like, 35 percent' … that's kind of what biostatistics is. It's pretty rigorous."
By comparison, football is practically an elective. The University of Akron transfer opened his first spring drills with the Wildcats as the team's presumptive starter at the "Mike" - or middle - linebacker spot. Wagner has almost no experience in the 3-3-5 defense and has been in Tucson, and on campus, only since January.
Still, Wagner - who will play right away because of NCAA graduate-student transfer rules - could be the key to the Wildcats' defense heading into the fall.
Here are four reasons Wagner should succeed at the UA:
1. He can tackle. No player in college football has registered more tackles over the last three years than the 6-foot, 230-pound Wagner. He led Akron in each of the last three seasons; his 13.4 tackles-per-game in 2011 ranked third among all Division I-A college players. Wagner enters the 2012 season as the nation's active leader in tackles.
"I played a little bit at Akron," Wagner said with a chuckle.
Fellow linebacker Jake Fischer called Wagner "a very cool dude, a very soft-spoken dude."
But, Fischer said, there's an edge.
"He's the quiet guy," Fischer said, "but he's going to come out and hit you."
2. He wants to win. For all his personal success, Wagner won just five total games in three seasons at Akron. The Zips went 3-9 in 2009 and 1-11 in both 2010 and 2011. Coach Rob Ianello, a former Wildcats assistant, was fired in December; Akron replaced him with former Auburn coach Terry Bowden.
Wagner should receive a better opportunity at Arizona. The Wildcats made three consecutive bowl games from 2008 to 2010 but went just 4-8 last year.
"I'm just hoping to come in and hopefully help turn this program around," Wagner said, "and win a lot more than three games next year."
3. He won't be intimidated. Though he previously played in the Mid-American Conference, Wagner is no stranger to power-conference football. Wagner's Akron teams played games at Penn State, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio State and Cincinnati over the last three years. The 2011 trip to Columbus was extra special for Wagner, a Dayton, Ohio, native who grew up a Buckeyes fan.
"It was awesome," he said. "We played some big schools at Akron, but playing in the Pac-12 and against a big team each week is going to be a little different."
4. He's smart. It's safe to say Wagner is the only football player in Arizona's renowned biostatistics program, a course of study that attracts "doctors and stuff," the linebacker said. Because of it, the Wildcats' linebacker is able to go incognito.
"They don't know. Only the teacher knows," Wagner said. "I kind of keep a low profile. Plus, they've probably got bigger fish to fry than caring about a football player."
Still, Wagner admits, his new school is more stressful than Akron was. But, both on the field and in the classroom, he's learning.
"Grad school's a lot harder than undergrad was," he said.
• March 24: Open scrimmage in Phoenix, noon (location TBD)
• April 14: Spring game in Tucson, 1 p.m. (location TBD)