Key returnees: Lee Anderson III (6-1, 243, SR), Dayven Coleman (6-2, 216, RS FR), Tony Fields II (6-1, 230, JR), Issaiah Johnson (6-1, 235, RS FR), Anthony Pandy (6-0, 225, JR), Colin Schooler (6-0, 236, JR)
Key newcomers: Derrion Clark (6-1, 220, FR)
The big question: With yet another new position coach, can Arizona’s linebackers reach their potential?
Fields, Pandy and Schooler are about to play for their third coach in as many years. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence at Arizona, or anywhere in college football.
The Wildcats’ safeties are in the same boat. As are their running backs. And their offensive linemen.
While continuity obviously is preferred, evolving leadership isn’t an absolute deterrent to improvement. College-aged kids are used to change. They’re quick to adapt.
The difference in this particular situation is that the new linebackers coach, John Rushing, has no known experience as a linebackers coach.
Rushing played defensive back at Washington State and primarily has coached defensive backs during his 20-plus years in the business. That includes last season at Arizona, when he served as the safeties coach.
Rushing spent eight seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packer and L.A. Rams. He was a quality-control coach on both sides of the ball. He coached defensive backs, running backs and receivers.
None of which is to say he can’t do it. Rushing has been around the game for a long time. He’s been part of some highly successful defensive staffs. He can learn.
It just seems like a strange way to configure this defensive staff. Earlier in the offseason, Rushing and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates — who coached linebackers in 2016 and ’18 — switched positions. UA coach Kevin Sumlin felt the pieces fit together better that way.
Yates had no experience coaching linebackers before coming to Arizona, and he seemed happy when he got to coach cornerbacks — his wheelhouse — in 2017. Scott Boone served as the LB coach that year. He had 10 years of experience coaching the position.
Boone wasn’t retained by Sumlin, who added Rushing to the staff as the safeties coach and moved Yates back to linebacker. Rushing had a history with Sumlin at WSU and is close friends with Yates. The move allowed Yates to work and communicate directly with defensive leaders Schooler and Fields. Both had productive second seasons.
Schooler made 24 more tackles and eight more stops for losses — 21.5 in all — in one fewer game. Fields’ numbers slid a bit, but he still had 89 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and two sacks. He also did his best work at the end of the season (3.5 TFLs, two sacks in last four games).
Pandy, meanwhile, flashed explosiveness in limited duty (25 tackles, three TFLs). His physical tools are on par with Schooler and Fields. Pandy’s best days appears to be in front of him.
Fields (at the start of the season) and Schooler (at the end) suffered through bouts of inconsistency last year, so one easily could argue they haven’t peaked either. The question is whether Rushing is the right man to draw it out of them.
Fields and Schooler are self-motivated worker bees who push each other and are determined to make a lasting imprint on the program. But even established NFL veterans benefit from quality coaching — or stagnate when it’s average or below.
For the UA defense to be the best it can be, Fields and Schooler have to be at their best. The onus is on Rushing to help them get there.