"The only way we're going to get better is by getting reps," said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The Wildcats gave up 499 yards per game last year.


The first thing Arizona Wildcats linebacker Derek Earls noticed about Friday's season opener was the crowd.

It was an odd observation, since Toledo's Glass Bowl, with a capacity of 26,248, is nobody's idea of a football palace.

But when you grow up in a town of 10,000 people and play junior college ball at North Dakota State College of Science, as Earls did, big-time is relative.

"I played in front of 1,000 or so a few times in high school, but that's about it," Earls said. "I think I had more people at my high school games than my junior college games. North Dakota, you know, there's not a lot of people up there."

The Waconia, Minn., native will probably be floored when the UA takes on The Citadel in Saturday's home opener at Arizona Stadium.

Arizona fans are already fond of him: The starting middle linebacker turned Friday's opener against Toledo into a rout with a tip-and-catch interception late the second quarter. The pick and an ensuing touchdown gave the Wildcats a 21-2 halftime lead. Toledo never threatened again.

Earls, 20, finished his Division I debut with a pair of tackles, three deflections and passing grades from his coaches.

Co-defensive coordinator Tim Kish joked with Earls that his performance was a result of good coaching.

"It gave him a lot of confidence," Kish said. "Those are things that happen when you play with great technique and great fundamentals - the things we talked about all camp. It just kind of came together for him last Friday night, which was really good."

Kish stopped short of calling Earls' performance surprising, though it probably was.

Earls seemed overmatched for most of spring drills and training camp, in part because the position he plays - "Mike" or middle linebacker - is known as "the quarterback of the defense." Earls spent his downtime learning the Wildcats' scheme, recognizing offensive formations and honing his physical skills.

The homework paid off Friday. Toledo was facing first-and-10 from its 17 when quarterback Austin Dantin tipped a play. Earls knew from a previous play that the Rockets were going to throw to tight end Danny Noble on a "dig" route.

"I baited him, I went inside, and I jumped it," he said.

In doing so, Earls silenced the biggest crowd he's ever seen.

Well, until Saturday's home opener against The Citadel.

"I heard they get pretty crazy, pretty nuts," he said. "I'll probably be a little nervous going into that game."

Extra points

• Arizona Wildcats wide receiver Juron Criner was incorrectly credited with an 11-yard catch in Friday's 41-2 win over Toledo. David Roberts made the grab on the second-to-last play of the third quarter; Toledo officials erroneously gave the catch to Criner, Arizona's receptions and yardage leader.

The scoring change was made Tuesday night. Criner finished with 10 catches for 176 yards, the 11th-best single-game performance in program history.

• Defensive end Mohammed Usman has been ruled academically ineligible and will not play this season, coach Mike Stoops said.

The transfer from Navarro College in Texas was expected to contribute as a third-down rusher.

On StarNet: Read more on reporter Ryan Finley's blog at go.azstarnet.com/finley

Up next

• What: The Citadel at Arizona

• When: 7 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Arizona Stadium

• TV: Channel 58

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)