The Arizona Wildcats had just defeated Cal for the second year in a row. Linebacker Colin Schooler again played a critical role.
As is customary, Schooler spoke with his father shortly after the game. Their conversation didn’t begin with Schooler’s game-turning interception or his touchdown-preventing pass breakup.
Like most athletes or coaches who are driven to succeed, Schooler remembers the bad plays more than the good ones. So the first postgame topics with his father were a missed tackle that led to a touchdown for Cal and a fumble that, improbably, led to one for Arizona.
“That’s what helps him become a better player on week-to-week basis. He’s always self-critical,” Tom Schooler, Colin’s dad, said by phone this week. “I didn’t have to say anything. He had already made the mental reparations.”
Colin Schooler has made far more plays than mistakes this season. Entering Friday night’s game at Utah, the sophomore leads Arizona in tackles (66) and the Pac-12 in stops for losses (11.5). He also has four quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a safety.
Schooler is the Wildcats’ highest-graded player on either side of the ball through six games, according to Pro Football Focus. The league leader in TFLs also has the second-highest coverage grade among Pac-12 linebackers, trailing only Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven.
“He’s smart, fast, athletic. He knows the game,” said Schooler’s classmate and running mate, Tony Fields II. “It’s that simple.”
It is … and it isn’t. Schooler’s physical gifts and knack for deciphering plays are obvious. His production speaks for itself. He was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2017, and he’s playing at an even higher level this season.
But while improving his technique and strengthening his body were important offseason objectives, they weren’t his primary goal for personal improvement. More than anything, Schooler wanted to become a better leader.
After the Sept. 29 game against USC, in which Arizona fell behind 24-0 before nearly staging a miraculous rally, Schooler scolded himself for the team’s inability to sustain energy across four quarters. Never mind that Schooler had a game-high 13 tackles and forced a fumble that he recovered.
“I’ll put that on me as a leader on this team,” he said. “It’s our job and my job to make sure everybody’s engaged. That’s my fault. Blame me.”
Schooler didn’t need to fall on the sword but did anyway. He knows that’s what leaders do.
Schooler didn’t feel completely comfortable in that role as a freshman. He began the season behind veteran Brandon Rutt. It made sense to cede that responsibility to him.
By Week 5, though, Schooler had been elevated to the starting lineup. (Fun fact: Not only was the 2017 Colorado game Khalil Tate’s breakout, it was also Schooler’s first career start.) He produced from the get-go, but the leadership piece wasn’t quite there yet.
“Everybody looks at you as a leader,” Tom Schooler said, “and you’re still trying to figure out where your classroom is.”
Then-linebackers coach Scott Boone figured Colin Schooler would become more vocal as he got older and became more comfortable. That’s exactly what has happened.
Schooler has evolved into an on-field extension of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who is now coaching the linebackers after working with the cornerbacks last season.
“He understands the defense more now,” said Tom Schooler, a longtime high school football coach. “Having coach Yates as his position coach, him being in the room now, he can bounce things off of him while they’re in meetings. He’s able to get answers right away to any questions he has about the scheme, the game plan, certain situations, down and distance. He’s able to anticipate what he’s going to call, what his mindset is.”
Schooler already was one of Arizona’s most instinctive and studious players. He and Fields, who starts alongside him at linebacker, spend countless hours together talking football and watching film. When Fields spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon, the interview interrupted their pre-practice film session.
“Whenever we find free time,” Fields said, “we text each other and meet up.”
Schooler honed his instincts as a two-way player in Orange County, California. He and older brother Brenden, a receiver for Oregon, each played on both sides of the ball. (Brenden has done it in college, switching from safety to wideout last year.) Their father believes that has made them “big-picture guys.”
“They understand the complexities of offense and defense because they’ve played both,” Tom Schooler said. “Colin can see when other teams are trying to set things up.”
Tom Schooler cited last year’s Washington State game as an example. In the fourth quarter, Colin Schooler intercepted a pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown.
“They ran that play multiple times before,” Tom Schooler said. “He had put that in his rolodex. That’s always been a strength of his — being able to recall it at the time.”
Colin Schooler’s interception against Cal resulted in a touchdown as well — but he wasn’t the one who scored it.
After picking off Golden Bears quarterback Brandon McIlwain at the UA 16-yard line, Schooler took off up the middle. As he cut to his left, the former running back switched the ball from his right arm to his left. At the Cal 45, Jeremiah Hawkins punched the ball out from behind. It caromed forward and skipped off the turf to Arizona’s Azizi Hearn, who carried it the remaining 34 yards into the end zone.
Schooler joked that it was all planned and described the play as one that went from good to bad to great.
“He was upset but happy at the same time,” Fields said.
Three days later, Fields was still giggling about the play. Schooler always remembers his negative plays. Fields won’t let this one slip his mind.
“He won’t hear the end of it from me,” Fields said. “He’s going to hear it every time he touches the ball.”