University of Arizona vs USC (copy)

Playmaking linebacker Colin Schooler, right, enters 2019 as the top choice for Arizona's team MVP

The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the final installment.

No. 1: LB Colin Schooler

Height/weight/year: 6-0, 236, junior

Key 2018 stats: 119 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 4 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 safety

Comment: Schooler is the quarterback of the defense and the most indispensable Wildcat on either side of the ball.

He makes calls. He makes plays. Win or lose, he represents the program with integrity.

One might argue that the defense hasn’t exactly lit it up during Schooler’s time in Tucson, finishing 10th in the Pac-12 in yards allowed each of the past two seasons; therefore, the thinking goes, an offensive player ought to be the team MVP.

Well, can you imagine the defense without its leader in tackles, tackles for losses and sacks – who also happened to rank second in interceptions and fourth in pass breakups? It isn’t a stretch to say a Schooler-less UA defense would be the worst in the Pac-12 by a long shot.

UA fans caught a glimpse of that alternate reality in a way in last year’s painful season finale against Arizona State. Schooler played despite batting the flu. He lost about 12 pounds during the week and needed four IV bags.

Not surprisingly, Schooler didn’t look like himself. His five tackles tied a season low. It was one of only two games in which he didn’t record a TFL. (The Utah game, in which just about every Wildcat struggled, was the other in both categories. Schooler had at least nine stops in his 10 other appearances.)

Schooler was determined to gut his way through it, and his off game wasn’t particularly noticeable as Arizona took a 40-21 lead late in the third quarter. But you knew something was askew when Schooler let ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins wriggle free for a 13-yard run on fourth-and-8 on the final play of the period. The Sun Devils’ fourth-quarter comeback probably doesn’t happen if the Wildcats stop him there.

The coaches made a move this spring to give Schooler some support and relief, which he needs. They shifted second-year safety Day Day Coleman from safety to “Mike” linebacker. In spring, Schooler seemed to enjoy having an apprentice, especially one who approaches the game with the same seriousness he does.

Schooler and his running mate, Tony Fields II, undoubtedly would benefit from getting a breather every now and then. The coaches didn’t feel as if they had a healthy alternative they truly could trust behind Schooler last season. Perhaps Coleman will be that guy.

The tough part is, it’s really hard to take Schooler off the field. Not only has he grown as a leader – an ongoing process, as Schooler readily acknowledged in spring – he has improved as a player. Those 21.5 TFLs were eight more than Schooler had the previous season. He doubled his total passes defensed, from three to six.

Schooler just has a knack for being around the ball, not unlike the player he often is compared to, Scooby Wright. Wright left Arizona after his junior year. It’s conceivable Schooler could do the same, especially if his game takes another jump.

Even if it does, Schooler is unlikely to post numbers like the ones Wright did as a sophomore in 2014. That was an all-timer.

But Schooler might be a superior NFL prospect. He plays better “in space” – an essential trait for modern-day, off-the-ball linebackers – and should test better in drills.

That’s a conversation for a later date, though. Schooler’s junior season is still in front of him. Wright’s was undone by injuries. Arizona’s defense wasn’t close to the same without its top playmaker.

Even with a backup plan in place, the 2019 Wildcats don’t want to find out what life is like without Schooler.

MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.