Scooby Wright, the underdog, is the face of Arizona football

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Scooby the Underdog wasn't supposed to be a five-star recruit.

His story still could have turned out well, perhaps really well, if such a rating had been bestowed upon him. Phillip Wright III still had enough drive, enough work ethic, enough "Humble Scooby," as Arizona teammate Will Parks says, to be great if everyone thought he would be great.

But would he be this great? Would Arizona's sophomore linebacker be a front-runner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year, a guaranteed All-American, and a finalist for the national defensive player of the year (Nagurski Trophy) and the Lombardi Award, if he heard how good he would be in recruiting? Would he be the face of an overachieving team, ranked 15th nationally, filled with similarly overlooked players?

"I told our staff," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, "we've got to find as many Scooby Wrights as we can. Whatever he was so-called out of high school, you can't say he wasn't a five-star for us."

Wright was a two-star recruit, as his Twitter handle, @twostarscoob, reminds everyone, especially the Pac-12 coaches who viewed him that way coming out of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, California. A recruiting process that brought more angst and anger than enjoyment didn't light the fire inside Wright, but it fans the flames every time he plays.

Cal didn't want him. He recorded 18 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks, and a forced fumble in Arizona's win against the Bears.

Washington dragged its feet. Scooby's answer: 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss, in last Saturday's win.

"He plays with that chip," said Matt Dudek, Arizona's director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel. "Like, 'I wasn't good enough for you. Now I'm going to have 19 tackles against you. I'm going to steal the ball three times.'"

When Arizona offered a scholarship in June 2012, Wright had been scheduled to attend camps at Oregon and UCLA. He thought: They never gave me the time of day. Why would I go?

He ended an upset of Oregon on Oct. 2 with a sack-strip-recovery against star quarterback Marcus Mariota. Arizona lost to UCLA, but Wright recorded 19 tackles, 4.5 for loss and three sacks. His numbers against the Pac-12: 84 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and five forced fumbles.

"It definitely fires me up," said Wright, who leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (2.1) and forced fumbles (5), and ranks third in sacks per game (1.2). "I went to all those combines and stuff. People always questioned my athleticism. I had one of the highest SPARQ scores in the country, like 112.

"It definitely motivated me more, being overlooked."

The overlooked label seemed to suit Wright, even before it was attached. With some exceptions, those told they are great don't approach football like he does.

As an eighth grader, Wright woke up his father, Phil, at 5:30 a.m., four times a week to get a ride to the high school. He would lift weights with the varsity players for an hour, hop back in the car, shower at home, and then head to the other side of town to his middle school for classes.

While at Cardinal Newman, Wright was the last player off the practice field. When he did leave the field, he and defensive coordinator Matt Di Meola would work on pass-rush techniques in Di Meola's backyard, or watch film. They spent many Sundays together, too. By the eighth game of Wright's sophomore year, he was Newman's best player.

"I don't know if we've ever seen a kid attack it like that," Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. "Scooby was just fanatical. You just think if someone works that hard, it has to work out."

Maybe Wright would have had the same drive as a four- or five-star recruit. But the snubs sharpened him.

"That stuff just ate at him, killed him. That stuff makes him work harder," said his dad, Phil, who coaches softball at Santa Rosa Junior College. "It seems crazy, but he wants to keep proving himself. I don't think it’s because he's mad and upset. He wants to prove people wrong.

"We always laugh and call him 'The Waterboy,' with tackling fuel."

Pac-12 opponents always will be lit matches for that fuel, but Wright's fire burns for Arizona.

He's the team's most recognizable player, both because of his game and his name. The quick backstory: Phil Wright, hoping to avoid the confusion he endured with his own father, started calling his son "Scooby" at a young age. It stuck.

"Ninety percent of people in his high school didn't know his name," Phil Wright said. "The only thing that says Phillip Wright is his driver's license."

He will always be Scooby at Arizona Stadium, where more fans are donning "Scooby's Crew" T-shirts. The T-shirts started with family and friends, but the increased demand led Phil to make several hundred more, and different versions.

Scooby has the fame he never had in high school, although he is not totally comfortable with it. Two days after the UCLA game, he was informed he had won his second consecutive Pac-12 defensive player of the week award. His response: "I don't care. We lost."

Still, he takes nothing for granted.

"He walks up to me after every game and says, 'Thanks for believing in me,'" Dudek said. "He doesn't want to be anywhere else."

Former Wildcats assistant Tony Gibson, now West Virginia's defensive coordinator, first identified Wright in spring 2012. The staff loved his high school highlights, but Rodriguez, aware of Wright's few suitors, wondered, "What are we missing?" He concluded the others were missing out and offered Wright, hoping no one would pick up the scent.

Wright committed June 21, his parents' anniversary.

"It really happened within a week," he said. "I never looked back. There was no gray. They were super straightforward, like, 'I want you.'"

Three days after graduation, Wright arrived at Arizona's campus. He started at outside linebacker as a true freshman and recorded 83 tackles, 9.5 for loss, but "played kind of blind." He wasn't used in pass-rush situations with four down linemen.

So he kept working.

"He was like a young Marine," said Parks, a Wildcats safety. "Most young guys come in timid. He's just got that energy, that Scooby mentality."

Wright is now a fixture in Arizona's third-down package, playing both defensive end and linebacker, as he did in high school. He's the only FBS player in the top 25 averages for tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.

"It's just something he has a knack for," safeties coach Matt Caponi said. "He's not the most mobile guy, but he's got that nonstop in him."

Wright corresponds with Tedy Bruschi, who, like Wright, was a lightly recruited player from Northern California who landed at Arizona. Bruschi became a two-time consensus All-American, leading the "Desert Swarm" defense.

"Tedy Bruschi was Scooby Wright before Scooby Wright," Rodriguez said.

Bruschi played on good teams, but Wright wants to lead a great team.

The two-star underdog wants to take Arizona to a five-star resort where it has never been: the Rose Bowl.

"That'd be the ultimate goal," he said. "Nobody's going to come back in 20 years and say, 'Oh, you had 20 tackles in this game.' If your team wins, that's all that matters in the end."