Northwestern Linebackers Preview
WNUR’s Jason Dorow (@jasondorow) previews the linebackers for the 2014 Northwestern football season.
The Northwestern linebacking crew will continue to be the anchor of the Wildcat defense in 2014. NU’s three starting linebackers led the team in tackles last season with senior captain Damien Proby topping that list at 112 total tackles, 65 of which were solo. However, Proby is gone now, and several players are changing position to fill Northwestern’s needs.
Starters: Chi Chi Ariguzo returns for his senior season and will stay at the WILL spot on the weak side. Ariguzo is the only returning Wildcat who totaled over 100 tackles last season. He will be vital to both the run and pass defense for NU. The defensive line lost Will Hampton and Tyler Scott in the offseason, so the ‘Cats aren’t going to do any better winning the battle up front. Ariguzo and the entire linebacking crew will often be moved closer to the line of scrimmage and have to fill up running lanes often. His knack for finding the football, which he proved by snagging four interceptions last season, will be valuable in pass defense.
Collin Ellis is back too, but he will move from the outside to the inside and assume the MIKE position. Pat Fitzgerald required a talented leader at the MIKE spot after the departure of Proby, and Ellis made for the best fit. He made 78 tackles last year and was huge in the season opener at Cal, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Ellis already had some experience at middle linebacker since he filled in for Proby during spring practice in 2013. Ellis’ ability to learn the middle linebacking position and direct a defense will be huge factor in how Northwestern fares on that side of the ball.
The starter at the SAM spot isn’t as certain, but Drew Smith is the favorite at this point. Smith is a strong, hard-hitting force that the ‘Cats could really use to help in stopping the run and making open field tackles, one of NU’s biggest weaknesses in 2013. He played in all 12 of Northwestern’s games last year and totaled 31 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss. Smith’s pass defense isn’t nearly as strong as though, and he could be a liability in coverage.
Reserves: Position battles aren’t complete obviously and starters could fluctuate throughout the season, but Jimmy Hall will likely back-up and share snaps with Smith. Hall made the conversion from safety to linebacker since Proby graduated and Ellis had to move to the MIKE. As a former defensive back, Hall is much better in pass coverage than Smith, so the two could rotate in and out depending on the game situation.
The other linebacking back-ups likely won’t see the field as often as Hall. Sophomore Jaylen Prater will back-up Ellis in the middle. He appeared in NU’s first three games last season, making five tackles, before suffering a season-ending injury. The second string in the WILL spot behind Ariguzo will be sophomore Joseph Jones, who played in five games last season and made one tackle on special teams.
Future: Northwestern has nine other linebackers on the roster, including four redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen. It’s unlikely that any of these guys get much play time, except maybe on special teams.
Overall: Northwestern is going to rely heavily on the linebacking crew to hold down this defense. Ellis and Ariguzo are some of the most experienced players on the defense and the team’s best tacklers. It’s yet to be determined how quickly they will adjust to the shifts in position. If Ellis and Hall struggle to make the switch, the defense could struggle in the early going. However, they’ve been practicing in this formation for months already and should be more than ready for the opener in Evanston. In any case, the linebackers should be NU’s strong suit on defense.