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Northwestern Football Unit Breakdowns: Linebackers

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Projected Starters 

Colin Ellis. Sophomore.

Ellis unseated Ben Johnson to start at strong side linebacker midway through last season and never looked back. His energetic, aggressive style and relentless motor helped NU’s linebacking corps outperform expectations last season.

A high school safety, the Baton Rouge, La., native didn’t draw interest from any SEC schools. He committed to NU, added 20 lbs and made the switch to LB, where he’s been nothing short of brilliant for a Wildcats defense in dire need of impact players.

This could be the year when Ellis really breaks out, when he takes his game to the next level. If he continues to improve, we’re talking about a player with all-conference potential, a future star at his position.

Damien Proby. Junior. 

After NU’s 41-31 loss at Iowa, Proby was named the team’s starting middle linebacker. From then on, he became a leader and provided a speedy, dynamic presence in the heart of the defense. He finished the season ranked sixth on the team with 53 tackles.

A full year of offseason workouts and spring practice as the unquestioned starter will further his development as he tries to lead one of the speediest linebacking corps in the Big Ten, a group that may qualify as Fitzgerald’s best since he inherited the starting coaching job in 2006.

Proby stepped up in NU’s Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas A & M, when he compiled seven tackles, six of those unassisted. He has the size, speed and field awareness to make a huge impact on NU’s defense in the upcoming season.

David Nwabuisi. Senior.

The undoubted leader of this linebacking corps, Nwabuisi returns for his final season on the heels of an impressive 85-tackle 2011 campaign, highlighted by his 9-tackle performance in NU’s upset at Nebraska, where he also recorded two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He made the switch to outside LB after Proby moved to the middle, and seemed to adjust to the change later in the season.

If this group is to live up to its lofty preseason expectations, Nwabuisi will need to set the tone, and establish a precedent for success. If he improves from last season, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, one has to think that Ellis and Proby will follow suit.

While his speed may be his best asset, Nwabuisi plays with a relentless resolve, a never-say-die attitude that affords him few, if any rest plays. He’s always moving, always hovering around the ball making plays.

His 84 tackles ranked him third on the team last season. My guess is that he breaks 100 in 2012.

Backups 

Chi Chi Ariguzo. Sophomore.

A shoulder injury sidelined Ariguzo for the final game of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but before the injury, he was a key reserve at outside (SAM) linebacker. Hankwitz will find more ways to use Ariguzo in 2012, and he may challenge for a starting spot at some point.

Should Ellis, Proby or Nwabuisi falter during the upcoming season, Ariguzo’s speed and instinctual play will ensure that there’s little, if any drop off. He improved in the latter part of last season, and was noticeably bigger, stronger and altogether more comfortable with the defense during spring practice.

The Others

Roderick Goodlow. Senior—After playing in eight games as a true freshman in 2009, Goodlow suffered a torn ACL in preseason camp, missed all of 2010 and played just two games last season. He’s an explosive athlete who can make an impact on special teams and provide depth if he’s healthy.

Drew Smith. RS Freshman—Smith was consistently one of the best players on scout team last season. He improved in spring practice and has a bright future ahead of him. Could contribute on special teams this season.

Doug Diedrick. RS Freshman—A walk-on who competed hard on scout team and in spring practice, Diedrick probably won’t see the field in 2012. If he does, it will be on special teams.

Will Studlien. Junior—Limited to special teams duty last season, Studlien could land a spot on the two-deep at MLB if he shows improvement in preseason camp.

Timmy Vernon. Junior—Another walk-on who contributed on special teams last season. He could spell Nwabuisi or Ellis at OLB.

Recruits (All star rankings according to Scout.com) 

Ifeadi Odenigbo, OLB. 6-3.5, 217—four-star, Centerville (OH).

Jaylen Prater, OLB. 6-2, 220—two-star. Wellston (OH)

Concerns

While Proby, Ellis, Nwabuisi should give Fitzgerald his strongest linebacking corps yet, an injury could spell doom for a group with little to no depth. Ariguzo is the only reserve who’s proven capable of handling large amounts of playing time, meaning that someone will need to step up in preseason camp.

The starters have talent, this we know. It’s what lies further down the depth chart that could hurt NU’s defense, especially later in the season.

Prognosis 

The linebackers will be the Wildcats’ strong suit on defense, replete with experience,  leadership and immense potential. With the secondary expected to struggle mightily, the LBs will be asked to drop into coverage more that they might like, but they have enough speed and versatility to defend the pass.

This athletic, rangy group will swallow up ball carriers and cover enough ground to stymie both run plays and short and intermediate crossing patterns. The unit as a whole promises to be one of NU’s best linebacking corps in recent memory, and the defense will no doubt benefit because of it.