Arizona LB Scooby Wright is no one-hit wonder

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright explodes into the guard and helps disrupt the UCLA play. The speed and certainty and unabashed violence with which he charged at the snap caused a reporter to query what sort of stunt the Wildcats were running on the play.

"That's just me playing football," said Wright, who already had moved on to the next scene while watching game film in the linebackers' meeting room inside the two-year-old Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.

Moments before, the typically laconic Wright, with the help of a red laser pointer, broke down another play with such nuanced detail it required 266 words. Sometimes it's predatory instinct and sometimes it's artful interpretation for Wright, but the end result is Wright ended up with 19 tackles and three sacks in the game, a 17-7 loss to the Bruins.

Wright not only became the nation's most decorated defensive player in 2014, he became a sensation. He had the fun name -- how can you not root for a guy who has been such a loyal companion to Shaggy? -- and he also owned a compelling backstory.

He was "Two-star Scoob" -- see his Twitter handle -- an overlooked recruit who played like a force of nature, a guy who piled up huge numbers and won the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards despite being rejected by every other Pac-12 program. He was a unanimous All-American, the first true sophomore to earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and finished ninth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

The media ate up his story, eagerly chronicling Wright's recollections of slights he endured as a unheralded recruit. The narrative was that as he piled up a nation-leading 29 tackles for a loss and forced six fumbles, he was sticking it to his naysayers, recruiting services and coaches who marginalized him in 2013, generally viewing him as a FCS player before Arizona alone offered him a full ride.

Everybody loves an underdog who makes good, and Wright himself is no exception. He even has a tattoo of David and Goliath on his heavily inked left arm.

It is suggested, however, that while Wright in 2013 and 2014 was "David," Wright heading into 2015 is now "Goliath." What once was Two-Star Scooby is now a certifiable superstar with national name recognition.

"Nah. Not at all. I will always remember [being a low-rated recruit], where I came from," he said. "Even watching this UCLA game. I was at UCLA's campus, gave them my film, didn't hear nothing back."

While Goliath, a five-star prospect, taking a stone to his noggin from an undersized teenager is a compelling image, it's important to recall David didn't peak after whipping the giant. He became more famous and more accomplished, in fact. Wright is preparing for his encore to an historic season in much the way he prepared for the 2014 season and all his previous seasons of football. He's focused on trying to outwork everyone, from the five-star prospects he eclipsed to the two-star ones who are pinning his picture to their mirrors hoping to duplicate his path.

That desire to outwork was on display at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, when Wright and a trainer were the only people working out in the Wildcats' weight room. The evening before, Wright played sparingly in the spring game and he wanted to get after it when most of his teammates -- and competitors -- were sleeping in. The workout is not just a means to an end for Wright. It's part of his countering critics and adversaries, real and imagined. While they slumber, he labors and that shall make all the difference.

Wright completed a series of circuits, doing each exercise to exhaustion with little rest in between. Well, other than two trips outside to the Arizona Stadium field to throw up -- think of Oregon's socks from the 2010 BCS national title game -- something that he did quickly before returning to the weights. While Wright does his share of standard lifts and doesn't neglect the beach muscles, his overriding focus is explosive strength and range of motion with an emphasis on loosening his hips, something that NFL scouts will be watching this fall with the assumption this will be Wright's final year in Tucson.

"That's been my dream since I was a little kid," he said. "You know how when you're a first grader and people ask you what you want to be when you get older? I'd say, 'I want to play in the NFL.' That has been my goal since I started playing football at the age of 6 or 7. And that was the most frustrating thing about the recruiting process. No one thought I was good enough."

Watching the 248-pound Wright leap frog over a pair of high hurdles in between lifts makes it seem odd that there were questions about his athleticism when he was a senior at Cardinal Newman High School. Fact is, the only notable resident of Windsor, California, according to Wikipedia, has always been an outstanding athlete.

Wright underwent a variety of physical tests -- vertical leap, 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, etc., -- at an Oakland combine as a high school senior and his 103.98 SPARQ score ranked among the elite, 11th overall and best among linebackers at that event. After 17 combines across the country testing thousands of prospects, his score ranked 124th overall in the nation, though his 4.88 40 wouldn't blow anyone away (Wright claims he's been timed at 4.65 in the 40). As previously pointed out by USA Today, his SPARQ score was higher than such celebrated athletes as Tim Tebow and Reggie Bush.

One of Wright's enduring frustrations seems to be the continued perception of him as a scrappy overachiever who makes plays based on the Wildcats' 3-3-5 scheme and his high revving motor. Wright feels like he should have been highly rated as a recruit and laden with offers because he was the athletic match of the guys with the gaudy star ratings and scores of offers, and the disconnect between his recruiting evaluations and his physical talent still animates him.

"You know how when you're a first grader and people ask you what you want to be when you get older? I'd say, 'I want to play in the NFL.' That has been my goal since I started playing football at the age of six or seven. And that was the most frustrating thing about the recruiting process. No one thought I was good enough."
Arizona LB Scooby Wright

"Everybody questioned my athleticism, and that didn't make sense in my head," he said. "It never made sense. It was like, 'What the hell?' It just didn't click in my head. I went to all the combines and played with all the best guys in the country. I was like, 'These are supposed to be the top guys in the country?' It never added up in my head."

Most interviews with Wright inevitably circle back like this. He's still quick to recall how coaches at UCLA, Washington and California spurned him, and his enduring annoyance still doesn't feel contrived. The stoicism he shows during his workout, only punctuating an occasional set with an rasped expletive, suggests a guy seeing motivating doubts coming from all parts of the surrounding horizon, to which he will show no weakness or vulnerability.

Wright told school administrators he didn't want his image added to a mural featuring all Arizona's football All-Americans near the Wildcats practice field. Though he enjoyed the pride his parents took in his postseason accolades, he doesn't like talking about his trophies. That, of course, means his teammates and coaches know just where to go if they want to get under his skin.

"We bug him about it," quarterback Anu Solomon said. "He hates it. He hates the attention. Every time we see him, we call him big time. He's the Mr. Big Time of this college football world. We believe it, but I know he won't get caught up in that. He'll continue to work and make sure he gets better this season."

The notion of "getting better" is tricky. Does that mean averaging three tackles for a loss per game rather than two? Does he need to win all the same trophies again? What about his inexplicable snub by the Butkus Award, which didn't even pick him as one of five finalists? (Yes, this annoyed Wright, who brings it up on his own.) Watching the UCLA film, Wright points out that in the first quarter alone he should have twice gotten Bruins in the backfield, and he still bemoans a missed sack of Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 title game. He can get better. He can get better in coverage and playing in space. He can diversify his pass rush moves.

"I think Scooby will be a better player next year than he was this year," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "You've got to have the mentality he has. He still has an edge about him. He still has a chip on his shoulder."

Speaking of that chip, back in the film room, Wright is not happy.

"My eyes are actually wrong here," he says. "I should be looking to the field because we are three-on-three. I should be helping out looking for that cut right there. My job right there is to get air under the football, for the football to go over. But I should be working more on that hash instead of cheating on the quarterback's eyes."

And then.

"See how I get stuck right there?' he says. "I should be running right through there, punching that inside shoulder. I messed up. See how it creates more area for our 'sam' 'backer. We miss. Gain of eight."

It's as though he's recalling the conclusion of his ESPN Recruiting analysis in 2013 while rewatching the handful of plays that didn't go well for him against the Bruins in 2014: "Wright most likely will need some time and a redshirt year prior to competing for playing time at the BCS level of competition."

It might defy logic or the conventional notions of water under the bridge and bygones and letting stuff go, but Scooby Wright, college football's most decorated defensive player, is still mad, still cultivating the chip on his shoulder that endures because it fuels his play as much as the beating heart inside his broad chest.

"And it will be there until the day I hang up my cleats," he said.