There is a long-standing myth that size reigns supreme when evaluating prospects. This myth has since been debunked by the progressive wave of undersized playmakers that have become increasingly prevalent in today’s game. These prospects mire in obscurity, often overlooked and written off without being allowed an opportunity to exhibit their talents. Akron linebacker Bubba Arslanian is a prime example of an intriguing prospect that is oft-slighted due to his inability to live up to a preconceived prototype.
The journey of Akron linebacker Bubba Arslanian
Aurora High School phenom
Arslanian, a two-way star at linebacker and fullback for coach Bob Mihalik at Aurora High School (Aurora, Ohio), served as the centerpiece of a Greenmen team that finished with a 10-2 record and a trip to the regional semifinal in 2016. For an encore, Arslanian accumulated 137 tackles (14 for loss), two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble, earning a myriad of post-season accolades, including first-team All-Ohio and Cleveland.com’s 2016 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“I had a decent season my junior year,” Arslanian said. “But I came back my senior year feeling strong, fast, and comfortable with everything going on. I just kind of took advantage of it.”
When Arslanian wasn’t a disruptive force on the gridiron, he doubled as a standout catcher on Aurora’s baseball team and wrestled. Despite experiencing varying degrees of success in all three sports, the high school phenom aspired to continue his football career at the collegiate level. After carefully weighing his options, Arslanian elected to remain in-state, choosing Akron University.
“Akron was my only D-I offer, and I started out as a blueshirt,” Arslanian explained. “That summer, I paid for a summer class, and I counted toward the 2018 scholarships. So, as soon as July 25th or 30th hit, I was on scholarship. I came in as a walk-on, but I counted toward the 2018 class.”
Rookie learning curve at Akron
In the weeks leading up to Akron’s season opener, Arslanian eventually traded his blueshirt label for a redshirt designation. Arriving on campus vastly undersized for the linebacker position at 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, Arslanian didn’t appear to be in the Zips immediate plans. However, the Aurora native maximized his first extended period of inactivity by tapping into a helpful resource — first-team All-MAC linebacker Ulysees Gilbert — whose diligent off-field preparation resonated with the young linebacker.
“Just him being in the building, his work ethic outside of actual practice,” Arslanian recalled. “Kind of what it takes to be great. You put in all this prep during the week on the field, but there’s so much more that goes into it. It really stuck with me, and I continued to do that.”
When Arslanian wasn’t spending his idle moments practicing the regimented mindset of his senior cohorts, his full-throttle approach on the scout team left a profound impact on the coaching staff.
“I’m out on scout team every day my freshman year, and coaches are telling me to tone it down a little bit,” Arslanian quipped.
Emergence as a redshirt freshman
Returning for spring practices noticeably bigger, stronger, and faster than the year before, Arslanian ascended up the Akron depth chart by fall camp. The fast-flowing linebacker fulfilled a prominent rotational role on a Zips defense that boasted the likes Gilbert, Jamal Davis II, John Lako, Kyron Brown, and Alvin Davis.
Appearing in all 12 games, including one in which he made his first career start at middle linebacker, Arslanian collected 13 tackles (two for loss). Due to his marked improvement, Arslanian was selected as the recipient of the Harry “Doc” Smith Award, and touted as Akron’s Most Improved in the weight room following a productive series of spring practices.
Redshirt sophomore surge
As if the pressures of equalizing the loss of Gilbert, Brown, and Davis to the professional level weren’t weighing heaviliy enough on Arslanian’s shoulders, the ascending linebacker was also entering his first year as a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representative.
“Brian Reinke, he graduated, so they were looking for new people to come into those roles,” Arslanian explained. “One of our academic higher-ups asked me if I would be interested, because they thought I would be a good fit. We’ll meet with MAC representatives every now and then and just talk about the tactics of what we think we can do on campus to improve what student athletes need to perform better.”
Arslanian’s impact on the field was just as effective as his off-field contributions. Appearing in 12 games (seven starts), Arslanian racked up 125 tackles (four for loss), two passes defended, two sacks, and one forced fumble on the year. Recording double-digit tackle efforts in all but three games, the redshirt sophomore ranked ninth nationally in tackles per game (10.4).
“Growing up I wrestled,” Arslanian said. “In football, it’s the same techniques almost, similar tactics. Just driving through somebody, being able to go get ’em. I got a nose for the ball, and I’m gonna get there.”
2020 outlook for Bubba Arslanian
“Luckily for me, my dad is big into lifting,” Arslanian said. “So, when all the gyms closed down, we have a little gym in our basement — dumbbells, squat rack, bench rank. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go down into my basement to get my lifts in. We have a lake nearby with a couple hills, so I’ll go condition there and get some hill work in, maybe pull the sled or something.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has essentially put the world on hold since early March, Arslanian, like many of his peers, opted to take a creative approach to offseason training. Whenever things do resume as usual, the once overlooked linebacker is expected to be universally heralded as one of the premier defenders in the MAC. Though often lauded for his tenacity, inherent instincts, ability to read and diagnose plays quickly, and fearlessly roam sideline-to-sideline, Arslanian pinpointed what he needed to focus on during the offseason to become a complete second-level defender.
“I want to be able to cover better,” Arslanian acknowledged. “In my man coverage, I want to be able to run with anybody and be confident in my ability to make a play on the ball.”
Expecting to enter the 2020 campaign weighing between 218 and 222 pounds, the chiseled 5-foot-9 defender has silenced his share of naysayers and skeptics over the years with his on-field performance — a trend that doesn’t figure to relent anytime soon.
“Just people doubting me, doubting my abilities,” Arslanian said. “You have to stand in there and know your worth, know what you can do. You’re not ordinary, you’re doing something that you love. You just have to keep pushing and prove ’em wrong.”