Arizona started the year with some young linebackers; WSU was forced to play young linebackers due to attrition, and Ken Wilson has prepped them well, Alex Grinch says.

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Washington State’s road trip to Arizona this Saturday will feature several members of the next generation of Pac-12 linebacking talent.

Justus Rogers, Jahad Woods, Kylan Wilborn, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II could be names you’ll hear a lot in the next few years.

On the Cougars’ sideline, redshirt freshmen Woods and Rogers are discovering their chemistry together after being pressed into duty this season when seniors Peyton Pelluer, Nate DeRider and Isaac Dotson suffered injuries. Pelluer and DeRider are out for the season. Dotson’s status is week-to-week.

Since the senior linebackers got injured, Woods has started five games and Rogers has two starts.

“They blossom once they’re out there and they see the speed and go, ‘OK I can do this,’” inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson said recently . “Every day they walk a little taller and they’re a little more focused.”

Yet somehow, the Cougars haven’t skipped a beat on defense. They rank seventh nationally in total defense, allowing 274 yards per  game, possess the Pac-12’s top pass defense and rank third in the conference in rush defense, giving up 120.1 yards per game.

WSU has Wilson to thank for that, says defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

“If there’s a headline that hasn’t been written yet, it’s the job Ken Wilson has done with those guys,” Grinch said. “We’re at the time of year where the bulk of coaches nationally are complaining about injury and depth. We go from three senior linebackers to two freshmen and redshirt freshmen linebackers, and their backups are freshmen as well, and we still are able to play at a high level. If Ken Wilson’s name is not attached to that, it’s a shame.”

Woods is tied with Robert Taylor for second on the defense with 38 tackles and has 4.5 tackles for loss. Rogers, who’s playing linebacker in game action for the first time since his junior varsity football season in high school, was the Cougars’ second-leading tackler in the win over Colorado. He finished with nine tackles, including six solo stops.

Rogers and Woods have improved in every game, Grinch said.

“They’re playing fast and their command of the things we’re doing is better each week,” Grinch said. “The issue with young players is that it’s a new offense (to plan against) every week. Even though there’s intricacies of each offense we have to adjust to, we have to make sure there’s not major changes. A lot of credit goes to them and coach Wilson.”

Across from WSU this week, Arizona’s defense features true freshmen Schooler  and Fields II at starting linebacker spots. A third true freshman, Wilborn, also plays  a hybrid defensive end/linebacker pass rushing position.

Schooler broke up Cal QB Ross Bower’s last-ditch pass attempt to beat Arizona with a two-point conversion in the end zone. He’s third on Arizona’s defense with 41 tackles, and second with 4.5 tackles for loss.

Fields has been equally effective. He’s second on the Wildcats’ defense with 47 tackles and three sacks, while Wilborn leads Arizona with seven tackles for loss and five sacks this season.

Fields suffered a concussion against Cal, while Wilborn sustained an ankle injury. But Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez indicated this week that he’s “hopeful” both linebackers will be able to play against WSU.

“They biggest thing I’ve been most impressed with is the maturity and how they’ve handled playing as true freshmen,” said  Rodriguez, adding that the Wildcats are being careful to ensure they don’t overload their young starters. “We thought they could contribute when they signed. They’re gonna be really good in the next couple years after they get an offseason behind them.”