Dakota Conwell

Courtesy University of Arizona

Dakota Conwell stood on the Arizona Wildcats sideline, where he spent most of his time as a freshman.

Watching his teammates play against rival Arizona State, Conwell was tapped on the shoulder in the second quarter by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and told to go in.

He had played sparingly up to that point in the season, but was about to get his big chance.

Of course, he first had to get over the fact that there were 51,901 fans in the stadium and that, for his Wildcats, there was no bigger game than the Sun Devils.

"I specifically remember the first play," Conwell said. "You run out there and it's like, 'OK, this is what I've been preparing for my entire life.' "

The Wildcats lost 41-34, but the true freshman linebacker made his presence felt with six tackles, including one for a loss.

The Pittsburgh native was the Wildcats' only four-star recruit in coach Rich Rodriguez's first recruiting class and was forced into action in his first season because of a lack of depth on the defensive side.

Conwell battled multiple injuries, adjusted to being more than 2,100 miles away from home and got his first taste of college life.

But, the 6-foot-2-inch, 217-pound linebacker still impressed coaches.

Fast forward to this spring and Conwell is trying to become a staple of Casteel's defense and a bigger factor in 2013.

He had a foot injury in the beginning of the season and then missed the New Mexico Bowl because of wrist surgery.

"Dakota still has a little bit of a banged-up hand, but he's gotten better," Rodriguez said. "He played some as a true freshman before he was ready and hopefully that experience will help him."

The Star recently chatted with Conwell about his freshman-year setbacks and what he's looking forward to in year two.

On how he feels this spring: "On a positive note, since I've gotten some time under my belt, I understand the system a lot more and how to play and how the coaches expect us to play. But, there are still so many areas of my game I need to work on. I'm still young and have been battling through some injuries. I'm going to try to get past that and be the best player I can be."

On his decision to come cross-country to Arizona: "I've never been homesick. I love coming out here. I've made some great friends on the team. The guys on the team are kinda like my family now and it's like I have family out here. Getting through that first semester - it's your first semester in college and it's college football season and I was thrown in there to play and I had to step up with a little pressure on me. I had to adjust to that, but now I'm moving forward and it's getting easier."

On how much he stays in contact with his family: "I have my mom, sister and brother back home and I talk to them a lot. I miss them, but they are real happy for me. My mom has a job on the West Coast, so she travels out here a lot and was able to come to four or five of my games. My brother has also flown out here for a few games, so it's been good."

On having to miss the New Mexico Bowl: "It was a little frustrating. I was starting to get the hang of things, but it was just one game. After the bowl, all my focus was on getting bigger, faster and stronger and really working harder in the weight room. I feel like I've made strides there now."

On his confidence level: "I definitely feel I know what I'm doing and can play faster. The coaches expect a lot of us, rightfully so, and I still have a lot to improve on. But I feel better about everything."

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk.