If you’re searching for Arizona’s next breakout star, look no further than freshman linebacker Derick Mourning — or D.J. as he’s commonly referred to by his teammates.
“He’s a big, strong kid. He has the confidence to play,” fellow linebacker Jalen Harris said. “He comes downhill, and he’s willing to hit people, and he’s very physical.”
The Wildcats have fallen desperate to find depth at the linebacker position after the losses of Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II in the offseason. The original plan was to run a 3-4 defensive scheme but head coach Kevin Sumlin and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads have now been forced to call an audible with such limited numbers on defense, opening up a prime opportunity for Mourning to step in and make an impact right away.
“We recruited [Mourning] with Colin Schooler and Tony Fields on the roster, but yet still needing depth at the inside linebacker position,” Rhoads said. “He’s a guy that played outside in high school … we recruited him to play inside just because of necessity, and obviously that necessity has grown. So we’re getting him fast reps and hopefully he’ll be a quick study and get to a point where we can use him inside as a true freshman.”
Mourning is listed at 6 feet 3 inches tall, 229 pounds and is coming off of a season where he put up 75 tackles — 10 of them for losses — and seven sacks in his senior year of high school. The three-star recruit from Katy, Texas has been the talk of the team throughout the first week of camp.
“D.J. has big size,” senior linebacker Anthony Pandy said. “He is bigger than me honestly as a freshman so that’s a big contribution, big help. He’s not slow, he’s fast. He’s learning quick.”
Sumlin said that a nickel defensive scheme might be the best option for this team as it would only need two linebackers on the field to be successful. Rhoads, however, believes that the original scheme might still be a viable option.
“You don’t scrap the scheme and shift to do something else, but you see what you can do with the personnel that is available to you,” Rhoads said. “At the same time, we are figuring out what everybody’s capable of.”
Arizona has certainly been experimental with its personnel in camp so far, forcing a few of its linebackers to play outside of their normal comfort zone — Jalen Harris in particular.
“Last year I was playing more hand in the ground, but this year they got me playing hand in the ground but also off the ball a little bit,” Harris said. “I’m able to drop coverage and rush the passer and keep the offense on their toes because they don’t know if I’m coming or dropping. Last year I did it a little bit, not much. It’s kind of a new thing, something I’m still learning.”
Rhoads has been doing his best with the defensive group so far, stressing the idea of making tackles and being as prepared as possible before the Nov. 7 start date for the Pac-12 football season.
“I think they’ve known for some time that we’re going to prepare them and practice them with the idea that we’re playing them,” Rhoads said. “I don’t think anything in how they’re being coached right now, how they’re being prepared, is a surprise to anyone.”
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