Like many of his teammates, Arizona Wildcats linebacker Tony Fields II described 2018 as a mixture of good and bad.
“Last season had its ups and downs,” the junior said after a recent practice.
Arizona’s weak-side linebacker had another productive campaign, at least on the surface. He also battled an injury for the first time in his UA career. And the end result for the team — a 5-7 record that included a pair of one-point losses — wasn’t what anybody wanted.
So, like all of his teammates, Fields is working on ways to raise his level of play this spring.
“I want to improve everywhere, honestly,” said Fields, who listed speed, technique and coverage as some his primary focal points. “I don’t want to nitpick. I’m trying to get to the next level. I just want to be a student of the game.”
Fields recorded 89 tackles as a sophomore, second most on the team behind fellow linebacker Colin Schooler’s 119. Fields had 104 tackles as a freshman, albeit in one more game. He also made a lot more impact plays in his first season.
Fields had 7.5 tackles for losses, including five sacks, two passes defensed and an interception in 2017, when he earned multiple Freshman All-America accolades. He had only 4.5 TFLs (two sacks) and wasn’t credited with a single pass breakup last season.
Fields hurt his shoulder against USC on Sept. 29 and couldn’t finish that game. It took him a while to feel fully healthy again. He played more like his 2017 self late in the season; he recorded 3.5 of his TFLs and both of his sacks in Arizona’s final four games.
A handful of factors could push Fields to peak performance in 2019.
One is expanded knowledge of his position and Arizona’s defense. Fields and his fellow linebackers are now being tutored by John Rushing, who previously coached safeties.
UA followers greeted that move with skepticism, given that Rushing has minimal experience as a linebackers coach. (He spent time in the linebacker room as a defensive consultant with the Los Angeles Rams in 2016.)
Fields and Schooler, who are playing for their third position coach in as many seasons, put a positive spin on it. In their view, Rushing offers a different perspective, which can only enhance their games.
“We’re getting more tools in our toolbox every year,” Fields said. “He helps us more with what’s going on in the back end. Now we understand why the safeties are giving the calls they’re giving, or the corners are giving the calls they’re giving. We’re able to react and move faster when we get to our drops. Everything’s going to be faster, more precise.”
Said Schooler: “It’s interesting. … Coach Rush has been at the NFL level, too. He’s also coached offense at the NFL level. He’s telling us what offenses want to do, what their concepts are, what they’re trying to attack. It’s another way of looking at things, and it’s going to make me better.”
Rushing served as an offensive assistant for the Green Bay Packers from 2009-13. He considers it a “blessing” that he can tell his linebackers what the coaches on the opposite sideline or the quarterback on the other side of the line might be thinking.
Rushing views his new job as a challenge — an opportunity to continue to grow and learn as a coach. He prepared for it by consulting with other linebacker coaches and watching film of NFL ’backers and Arizona’s returnees at the position.
With regard to Fields, Rushing let him know that classmate Anthony Pandy will be battling him for playing time. Pandy is an explosive athlete who recorded 25 tackles, including three TFLs, in part-time duty last season.
“I think competition brings the best out of you,” Rushing said. “Guys are going to share reps. I think that kind of puts a chip on your shoulder if you’re a competitor.
“Tony’s a competitor. He was disappointed in his sophomore season. He’s ready to go. He’s been showing it and playing at a high speed.”
The UA hosted a Wildcat Club event, shifting practice to Arizona Stadium. A portion of the team’s scrimmage was open to the media. Some highlights:
- Khalil Tate was the first QB in. He completed a pass over the middle to Zach Williams and also scrambled for a first down.
- Jamayre Joiner was the second QB in. His best pass was a sideline completion to Jailen Bailey.
- Joiner was sacked twice, by Nahe Sulunga and Justin Belknap.
- Freshman receiver Jaden Mitchell caught a short pass and sifted through the defense for a first down.
Running backs coach DeMarco Murray turned 31 in February. He’s young enough, and fit enough, to still be playing.
So when Murray tweeted Monday morning that he was planning a comeback with the Dallas Cowboys — following Jason Witten’s lead and joining Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield — it seemed plausible.
Of course, Monday was April Fools’ Day. Murray’s tweet, he later revealed, was a prank.
Murray played for the Tennessee Titans in 2017. He played for the Cowboys from 2011-14, earning AP Offensive Player of the Year honors in his final season in Dallas when he rushed for a league-high 1,845 yards.
Murray is in his first season as a UA assistant after working as a college football analyst for Fox Sports last year.
- UA coach Kevin Sumlin is back on his feet after spending most of the first two weeks in a golf cart. A player stepped on Sumlin’s foot during the first practice of spring.
- Players who were limited included defensive backs Malik Hausman and Scot
- tie Young Jr.; offensive linemen Bryson Cain, Robert Congel and David Watson; linebacker Day Day Coleman; and receiver Stanley Berryhill III. Edge rusher Jalen Harris left practice early.
- Players who did not participate included tight end Bryce Wolma and cornerback Jace Whittaker.
- Defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei said the team is using more four-man fronts this spring.
- Asked which lineman on the other side of the ball has impressed him the most, Uiagalelei cited sophomore tackle Donovan Laie. “I think he’s going to be playing on Sundays,” Uiagalelei said.
- Rushing on recruiting needs in 2020: “We’ve gotta get more athletic and bigger. It was a different body size with the last staff as far as the type of guys they recruited. … A lot of times we stepped on the field this last year and we were the smallest team on the field.”
- Former Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler, who played under current UA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, attended practice.