by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
It began with a chuckle, the kind you’d mistake for a middle school kid lying about a missed homework assignment. David Nwabuisi’s face lit up when I broached the topic, one he remembered quite well. He composed himself, still hiding a sheepish half-grin, then calmly articulated his thoughts as his youthful smirk snapped its way back into normalcy, revealing a stern, determined gaze.
“The spring game? We don’t pay too much attention to that.,” he said, downplaying the defense’s 47-43 victory over the offense. “We’re all really competitive. Our offense was our opponent that day, and we really wanted to win. We were happy about pushing forward, but there’s still a lot of improvements to make”
The game was played under Pat Fitzgerald’s invented spring scrimmage rule modifications, whereby sophomore defensive tackle Chance Carter’s late pick six counted for 17 points. Still, there was little doubt which unit was the better one that day. The defense recorded two takeaways and limited the offense to 6-of-18 on third down conversions. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian never appeared comfortable in the pocket thanks to the constant pressure applied by Carter, redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson, junior Tyler Scott and the rest of a defensive line rotation that emerged this spring with newfound depth, young talent and potential. In the secondary, Nick VanHoose and Davion Fleming made progressive strides throughout the spring and relished the gratifying victory.
Most of the defense-driven discussion—whether positive or negative—in the wake of the spring game involved those two units. Contrast that with the linebackers, who received little in the way of praise of scrutiny throughout spring practice. The lack of dialogue doesn’t concern Nwabuisi, nor should it. After all, this very well could be the best linebacker corps of Fitzgerald’s tenure.
“Look at our head coach,” Nwabuisi smirked as he gestured toward his coach on the dais. “We try and take from him. As a linebacking crew, we try to be the quarterbacks of the defense. We’re definitely trying to become bigger leaders in the defense this year.”
The group returns its four primary contributors—Nwabuisi, Damien Proby, Colin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo—from last season, and touts a host of young players poised to make big leaps in production this season. Redshirt freshman Drew Smith, a 6-1, 205-pound dynamo with loads of promise and potential, shone throughout spring practice and could fill in at outside linebacker behind Ellis, Nwabuisi and Ariguzo. True freshman Eric Wilson has the chance to play a key backup role this season as well, this after joining the Wildcats with high praise from most national recruiting analysts. Another true freshman, Ifeadi Odenigbo, the crown jewel of NU’s 2012 recruiting haul, could play a significant number of snaps at linebacker, though it’s unclear where he fits in the mix, and he may eventually end up at defensive end.
Last season’s core four will receive veteran reinforcements, including junior Tim Vernon and senior Roderick Goodlow, to go along with a handful of younger players. The depth chart remains a mystery, and preseason camp will go a long way towards constructing roles and playing time allotments. However it shakes out, the linebackers, on paper at least, are far and away the defense’s strongest unit.
“We have a lot of the same guys returning,” Nwabuisi said. “We feel like we have bigger responsibilities this season. That’s for sure.”
With the losses of Brian Peters, Jordan Mabin Jack DiNardo and Vince Browne, Nwabuisi senses a leadership void, but feels he can become just the sort of maturing veteran presence the defense needs. After starting the season at middle linebacker, Nwabuisi found a new home on the outside, where he surfaced as a centerpiece in NU’s defensive efforts. He played his best game against Nebraska, a nine-tackle performance in which he helped stifle Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead. Nwabuisi improved as the season rolled along and had evolved into one of the team’s most indispensable defensive players when NU made its trip to Houston for the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
By the time NU wrapped up its spring practice slate, Nwabuisi had solidified his status as one of the team’s biggest and most important leaders. These days Nwabuisi stands alone, unchallenged atop the leadership totem pole, and he has no qualms confirming as much.
“I really feel like I need to take a bigger leadership role,” he said. “Peters was the leader, he knew the game so well, and he did a lot of the leading. There wasn’t was much pressure on me to lead last year. Now there’s a lot of pressure.”
For much of Fitzgerald’s tenure, the defense has shouldered the lion’s share of criticism for NU’s failures. Meanwhile, the offense, powered by a seemingly annually explosive spread scheme, consistently ranks among the league’s best. With plenty of firepower returning, offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s pass-oriented attack should replicate its recent success. The defense, despite its spring game triumph, seems like the weaker unit; businesses as usual.
The inter-unit disparity isn’t weighing on the defensive players as they approach preseason camp. Nwa feels no pressure to “catch up” with his offensive counterparts. In his mind, the two units represent one team. With huge uncertainty in the secondary and significant turnover along the defensive line, it’s highly unlikely the defense can replicate the offense’s statistical success this season. Yet there’s no doubting the all-around strength, depth and versatility in the linebacking corps. Thanks to Nwabuisi, and a host of key ancillary parts, the linebackers could carry this defense to greater levels of achievement.
“We’re ready to go,” Nwabuisi said of the defense. “The linebackers are going to be strong this season. But we’re one unit. We’re excited for week 1, just ready to get out there.”