Photo credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Photo credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Our Big Ten previews in the rearview, we’ll take the next two weeks to preview every Northwestern position group.

For day two, our Austin Siegel analyzes the Wildcats’ prospects in the linebacking corps.

Unit Capsule

linebacker depth chart

It’s going to be an interesting year for Northwestern at linebacker, where the ‘Cats will look to replace two NFL-caliber players in outside ‘backers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall, while relying on the continued development of sophomore Anthony Walker as the starting MLB.

Drew Smith had a productive 2014 season for Northwestern, earning seven starts and playing well late in the season when injuries thinned out NU’s linebacking core. The fifth-year senior had eight tackles in the season finale against Illinois and recovered a fumble in the loss to Michigan. He’ll be joined by junior Joseph Jones, who will need to make a big leap in production if this duo has any chance at matching the production of Ariguzo and Hall. Jones made four appearances off the bench last season for Northwestern.

At middle linebacker, the ‘Cats will look for Anthony Walker to build on his breakout 2014 campaign, which certainly seems possible given his rapid development last season. After seeing limited playing time in the first three games of 2014, Walker came out of nowhere in the win against Penn State, recording eight tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown. He would improve on that performance in big wins against Notre Dame and Purdue, returning an interception 65 yards against the Fighting Irish.

Upside

Experience. Despite the losses of Ariguzo, Hall and Collin Ellis (who retired midway through last season due to concussion concerns) this unit is not as raw and untested as it may seem.

Though Walker may be the youngest starter among the linebackers, he also had the most prolific 2014 season of the bunch. Earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after his breakout performance against Penn State, Walker’s development will be key for the strength of this unit. Even if his numbers take a step back against Big Ten opponents, Walker can still provide this defense with the dual-threat linebacker they need to compete this season.

If he can build on his sophomore season and Drew Smith can bring his hard-hitting mentality into running lanes, this unit could be a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats.

Downside

Lack of depth. Northwestern was bitten particularly hard by the injury bug in 2014, and while this is a fact of life in college football, it only makes depth more important for a Big Ten team like Northwestern.

Players like Anthony Walker were able to step up and prove their mettle against Big Ten competition when the starters went down, but it remains to be seen if any of the freshman on this year’s squad have the same potential.

One player to watch could be Jaylen Prater. He figured to play a role at middle linebacker in 2013 before going down with a season-ending injury that kept him out until last season’s homecoming game against Nebraska. He appeared sparingly for the Wildcats last season, but two seasons removed from that injury, he will be counted on to play a larger role in his junior season.

Guys like Prater will have to step up for Northwestern to overcome potential losses at linebacker in 2015.

Key Player

Anthony Walker has real superstar potential for Northwestern as he looks to build on his breakout 2014 season.

Not expected to contribute much coming into last year’s campaign, Walker burst onto the scene against Penn State and didn’t look back after his debut in Happy Valley. He flashed his dual-threat ability with two interception returns of over 40 yards and four games with seven or more tackles in 2014, also winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after the victory over the Nittany Lions. Asked to lead the linebackers coming into the new season, Walker will have to assume a leadership role as one of only two players – along with Drew Smith – who saw much playing time with this unit last season.

If Walker can become a Monster (North) of the Midway for the Wildcats this season, then the linebacking unit will have a real chance to succeed.

In a Sentence

A fourth linebacker needs to emerge to bolster a solid starting core.

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