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READY WHIP

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whip linebacker. What an appropriate position for Arizona senior DaShon Polk.

He whips past offensive linemen, bursting into the backfield and making tackles for losses.

He cracks whip in the huddle, motivating his teammates with intense passion.

By game’s end, Wildcat opponents are usually whipped. And from sheer exhaustion, so is Polk.

“I leave it all on the field and I expect my teammates to do the same,” Polk said. “That’s the only way to play this game, know what I’m saying?”

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The words and deeds of this 6-foot-2, 230-pound whirlwind convey his message loud and clear. There is little chance that Arizona, 12-1 last season and ranked No. 4 in preseason polls, will become complacent with Polk around.

“Something I was most concerned about after last season was a void in terms of passion and leadership,” Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said. “DaShon Polk filled that void. He is fiercely competitive and he cares deeply about our football team.”

A former Taft High safety, Polk found his niche at Arizona in 1997 when Rich Ellerson returned after one season as head coach at Southern Utah for a second stint as a Wildcat assistant, this time as defensive coordinator.

Ellerson implemented a 4-3 flex defense, which increases the responsibilities of the middle linebacker--also called the whip or flex linebacker.

Polk, who redshirted in 1996 and bulked up to linebacker size, audibilizes defensive alignments depending on the offensive formation. And he is free to roam the field.

On one play he might be over the center. On another he’ll line up outside the strong-side tackle. On another he’ll drop to a three-point stance and rush the quarterback.

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And he’s barking signals to his fellow defenders all the while.

“DaShon has taken the position and made it his,” Ellerson said. “It’s no longer the whip linebacker. It’s the DaShon Polk position.

“He’s at the center of the maelstrom. I call a defense, then he recognizes the offensive formation and goes to work moving guys around. We adjust right along with the offense.”

Polk took over as whip in 1997, making 46 tackles, including nine for losses. He had three sacks and recovered three fumbles as the Wildcats went 7-5.

“It was so much different than safety because I’m on the line of scrimmage and linemen are firing out and blocking me,” Polk said. “My idol growing up was [Chicago Bear middle linebacker] Mike Singletary. He knew so much about his position. I decided to make the whip mine.”

Ellerson’s scheme came together last season. Arizona led the Pac-10 and ranked 12th nationally in rushing defense. Polk had 56 tackles, including 13 for losses, and four sacks.

He came up big in the Wildcats’ 23-20 victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, making five solo tackles, including three for losses.

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“As DaShon grows more confident, he has more flexibility to make calls,” Ellerson said. “If he sees something we don’t want to be in, he can keep me from making a bad call.

“His biggest attribute is that it’s a big deal to him to be right. He’s a student of the position.”

Polk’s improvement makes his teammates more effective.

“He’s an enthusiastic, very emotional player,” Ellerson said. “He is enormously well-liked by his teammates off the field. There is a way about him that draws people to him.

“He’s a leader, and fortunately for us, he is leading in the right direction.”

The Wildcats return nine defensive starters, including Polk’s fellow senior linebackers Marcus Bell and Scooter Sprotte. Most of the veterans spent the summer in Tucson working out together.

They reminisced about highlights from last season--the 31-28 victory over Washington, the 27-23 victory over California, the 50-42 shootout over Arizona State--and realized there isn’t much difference between a team that goes 12-1 and one that is 7-5.

“All we talked about this summer was that every game we played was hard,” Polk said. “It takes the whole team to go 60 minutes. There wasn’t one selfish player on our team. The chemistry was outstanding.

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“We learned what it takes to win. I, for one, am not going to let us forget.”

It’s time for the whip to get cracking.

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