'It's a blessing': Arizona LB Justin Flowe could be the key to rebuilding team's defense

Arizona Daily Star
With a Powerade towel wrapped around his head like a designer scarf, Justin Flowe was serene following Arizona's practice on Tuesday until the linebacker was asked about the neck pad — or cowboy collar — he wears on the field.
Then the intensity visibly built up in Flowe and "his other alter ego" arrived.
"I've been wearing it my whole life," Flowe said. "I feel like the neck pad brings a different mentality to me. I feel like the neck pad just turns me into a supervillain. Even my teammates, they see me as that. I always want to come and be a villain every day."
Flowe's supervillain name? "Heem," similar to "him," a name he created as an All-American five-star linebacker at Upland High School in Chino Hills, California. In a social media video posted by the Arizona team account, UA defensive tackle and Georgia transfer Bill Norton referred to Flowe as "Heem Jones Jr."
"You can call me anything: Heem Dracula, Heem Jones Jr., Heem Superman, Heem anything," Flowe said.
The Heem identity was molded when Flowe was "just growing up and wanted to bring a different mentality and just be a superhero — supervillain — and just be whoever you want to be in your mind," he said.
"So I just use it and it pushes me every day," added Flowe.
Flowe's "Heem" alter ego is a part of his free-spirited persona as a middle linebacker. The passion oozes through Flowe's personality, but the UA coaching staff is working with Flowe to find the right blend of controlled chaos. Playing free, but also confining himself to the tasks of his role as a "Mike" linebacker.
Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch said the Wildcats are "going to have to work through making sure that (Flowe's) passion doesn’t get in the way of his technique and responsibilities as a player."
For defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, "that's an everyday battle for me, man," he said.
"I'm trying to build some confidence in the kid and (make him) really understand that you can be more productive when you're under control," Nansen said. "It's an everyday reminder for him."
Erratic play and freelancing, coupled with multiple injuries in a two-year span, led to Flowe's mercurial career at Oregon, before the 6-2, 225-pound linebacker transferred to the UA. In three years at Oregon, Flowe recorded 50 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss, and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week in 2021 for his 14-tackle performance against Fresno State.
When Flowe was away from the team due to injury, "I just learned to love the game more," he said.
"If you really want to play football, you have to love it," Flowe said. "When you're hurt, you sit back and think from a third-person view. I had to sit back. I couldn't control injuries, so I had to sit back and watch, and I feel like that really made me who I am today, and I thank God every day."
Nansen said Flowe is "really becoming our juice guy out there" for the Wildcats' defense since the linebacker transferred in the spring. During the spring, Flowe fell out of the Wildcats' projecting starting rotation, but ascended his way back to work alongside "Will" linebacker Jacob Manu, who became one of the Wildcats' top defensive performers in the second half of the 2022 season.
He's starting to figure out the defense and understand where he fits and where his assignments are at. ... I'm proud of where he's at, but he still has a long way to go," Nansen said of Flowe.
Nansen's coaching techniques and style are resonating with Flowe, too.
"Coach Nansen, the way he explains everything is great and all of the young guys are benefitting from the way he's coaching," Flowe said. "Every day, just leveling up.
"Biggest thing for me was being the best player I can be every day," he said. "Just pushing my guys, run to the ball, and just want it more."
‘It was about stability’:Arizona’s Robbins, Heeke explain Wildcats’ move to the Big 12
Flowe's steady improvement doesn't guarantee him a starting spot in Arizona's defense.
Washington transfer and former four-star linebacker Daniel Heimuli has emerged as a potential starter. Heimuli has made several tackles for loss or near the line of scrimmage in preseason training camp. Nansen said there's "competition between him and Flowe" for the starting linebacker.
"You go and recruit great players, then you let them battle it out. That's the whole deal. Bring them in here and see who's going to be the best guy. In three weeks, those guys will be the starters. ... Daniel is playing a lot of football, and we're counting on Daniel to (help) rotate three guys, four guys, so you'll see him play more and more."
Whether it's Flowe or Heimuli starting next to Manu, having too many linebackers and depth isn't necessarily a problem for the Wildcats and their new-look defense.
"The linebackers are the deepest by far in the short time that I've been here," Fisch said.
Perhaps Flowe is the hero — err, villain — the Wildcats needed to help change the direction of Arizona's rebuilding defense.
"When villains have to go through all of that adversity, it makes you who you are," Flowe said. "The adversity turns you into that.
"I thank God every day that I'm here at Arizona, because man, it's a blessing."
Extra points
• Flowe was named to the 51-player Butkus Award preseason watch list on Thursday. The Butkus Award is given to the top linebacker nationally in college football. Flowe was included on the Butkus Award watch list for the second time in his collegiate career. Flowe won the high school Butkus Award in 2019. He was also named to the preseason Lott "IMPACT" Trophy watch list in June.
• Nansen, on true freshman linebacker and Hawaii product Kamuela Ka'aihue: "He's been good. He's got a long way to go learning-wise, but he's coming along. Obviously, he just got here, so he's got to get in a little bit better shape, so we're pushing through it."
• Arizona held its first live tackle practice on Thursday. Quarterback Jayden de Laura had arguably his best personal day at training camp. During one of the final team periods, de Laura threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Cowing. Earlier in Thursday's practice, de Laura connected with Cowing for a 45-yard touchdown in a 7-on-7 drill.
• Sophomore running back Jonah Coleman burst for a 32-yard touchdown run in a team period.
• Redshirt freshman wide receiver A.J. Jones, who is among Arizona's most consistent standout pass-catchers in training camp, hauled in a 50-yard touchdown despite smothering coverage by safety Isaiah Taylor.
• Junior safety D.J. Warnell recorded an interception toward the end of Thursday's practice. Warnell, who is competing for one of Arizona's starting safety spots, was one of the Wildcats' top performers on special teams last season.
• Tucson-based indie rock band "Calexico" will hold a free concert on the UA mall leading up to the Wildcats' season opener against Northern Arizona on Sept. 2.

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