Summer Preview: Northwestern Linebackers
Photo By David J. Phillip, Associated Press
From Nick Roach to Napoleon Harris to Pat Fitzgerald himself, Northwestern has produced its fair share of talented linebackers in recent memory.
But no amount of talent could have made up for the amount of injuries the linebacking unit suffered through last season. A unit led by senior Bryce McNaul that entered 2011 with a lot of promise ended up getting weakened by injuries and was part of a defense that allowed over 407 yards per game.
While it was far from just the linebackers that could be blamed for the Northwestern’s defensive ineptness, there are several indications that the linebacking corps shared some of its responsibility.
Of the Big Ten’s 12 teams, Northwestern and Minnesota (3-9) did not have a player in the top 20 of the Big Ten’s tackles for loss. They were also last in the Big Ten in sacks (17) and sack yardage (109). The Wildcats were unable to disrupt activity in the opponents’ backfield, which put a lot of strain on the subpar secondary.
Additionally, the team’s two leading tacklers (Ibraheim Campbell and Brian Peters) were in the secondary and a linebacker was named Northwestern’s Defensive Player of the Week only twice during the 2011 season.
But one of the few benefits of the last season’s injuries is the squad brings back three players with extensive starting experience, two of whom enter the preseason training camp as starters.
The unit will have the benefit of two players in leadership roles: senior and junior Damien Proby.
The two were involved in the team’s biggest personnel adjustment on defense last season when a back injury to McNaul, in addition to the fact that the team allowed over 38 points per game over its first five Big Ten games, led to Proby replacing Nwabuisi as starting middle linebacker. Nwabuisi moved to weakside linebacker for the final six games of the season to replace McNaul.
With Proby at middle linebacker, the Wildcats reeled off four consecutive wins to become bowl eligible for a school record fourth consecutive season. He also manned the middle for the defense’s best performance of the year, an upset win at No. 10 Nebraska.
The switch appeared to be beneficial for both players. Proby is the more polished linebacker, while the transition to the outside allowed Nwabuisi to utilize his athleticism in the open field. He also gained a better overall knowledge of the defense by playing the middle, which thereby made his transition to the outside easier.
“If you have the athletic ability, you should be able to move around through all three linebacker positions,” Nwabuisi said.
Now as the two most experience players on the linebacking corps, Nwabuisi believes the tandem compliments each other well as leaders.
“At times he’ll be the one yelling, leading, and I’ll be the one sitting back just being allowed to play the game. We can take turns,” he said. “Sometimes if I feel he’s being too hard or he’s saying the wrong thing, I’ll check him on it, and he does the same thing with me. It’s good to have someone you respect (and) able to tell you to calm down whenever you might get too on your teammate or whatever it is.
“It’s also good to take some pressure off your back when it comes to leading the team.”
Proby, the team’s hardest hitter, will come in at a bit of a disadvantage this season, however, as he missed all of spring practice while recovering from right knee surgery.
The team has yet to officially decide whether it will be Nwabuisi or Proby in the middle on Sept. 1 at Syracuse but barring any lingering effects from Proby’s surgery, it would make the most sense for him to return.
Sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo heads into Camp Kenosha as the favorite to start on the strongside. Ariguzo started against Penn State as a freshman due to injuries and continued to make positive contributions for the defense before breaking his collarbone against Minnesota. He missed the last two games of the season.
Nwabuisi rated Ariguzo as the team’s best tackler in the open field.
Fellow sophomore Collin Ellis will be Ariguzo’s main competition at the Sam. Ellis broke his thumb during the 2011 preseason, another shot to Northwestern’s linebacker depth. When Ellis was able to make it onto the field later in the season, he came out with a fresh breathe of enthusiasm that was contagious with his teammates.
“He has a wild mentality,” Nwabuisi said of Ellis. “He’s out there just flying around, yelling random, random things. Whenever Collin is on the field it’s just a lot more fun.”
Junior and former walk-on Timmy Vernon played in nine games and saw most of his action on special teams last season. He will be counted on as a dependable and experienced backup if one of the top four linebackers were to go down with an injury.
Senior Roderick Goodlow, who tore his ACL after his freshman season and has been riddled with injuries ever since, has been moved to the defensive line.
The team has attempted to get faster at the position in order to keep up with the lightening-fast spread offense that have taken over the Big Ten.
Never has the defense looked more behind than last season. In each of Northwestern’s Big Ten games, their opponent gained more yards per play than their average over the entire season.
Linebackers coach Randy Bates was on record as saying that last year’s unit could have been the fastest he had in his then-six years with the Wildcats. Obviously that did not translate into immediate results.
But that may change with the addition of highly touted freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo. The former track star played defensive end in high school. Combination of size (6-foot-3, 225 lbs.) and speed (4.44-second 40) could be valuable for a team that had so much difficulty disrupting their opponents in the backfield.
It was initially thought that Odenigbo would move to linebacker but has played some defensive end in practice so it remains to be seen where the talented freshman will play on the field or even if he will redshirt the 2012 season.
Redshirt freshman Drew Smith is a player that figures to make a contribution either in relief of an injured starter or with Vernon as a special teamer and true freshman Eric Wilson has received reps with the second team in Kenosha.
With two established leaders, Northwestern’s linebackers look to be further along than last year’s group and are the most experienced unit on the defense. If injuries do not catch up with them like last season, look for an improved group with a balance of experienced and young talent.