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Football Unit Rankings: No. 2, Linebackers

It was just three weeks ago that we summed up our ranked list of Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Now we’re expanding our unit of analysis with a comprehensive analysis of the Wildcats’ position units. Only this time, we’re changing our fundamental criterium from “most important” to “best”. It’s extremely difficult to rank position units based on importance, simply because each unit is vital to a team’s overall performance. Any significantly weak or strong performance by one single unit can radically alter the outcome of any game, which is why it made a great deal more sense to order them with respect to their overall strength, and not their importance to the team.

As it stands, the Wildcats are still in training camp, with plenty of position battles yet to be resolved in the lead-up to the season-opener at Syracuse on Sept. 1. We have no definitive answers for who will start at every position, but after observing spring game practice and much of preseason camp, the first-team offense, defense and special teams is beginning to emerge from the competition and we feel we have a pretty decent feel for who fits where. Our projected starters may differ from what you see on gameday, but it’s nonetheless what we see as the most likely group at this point in time. So over the next nine days, in a unit-per-day release process, you should get a detailed snapshot for each unit as we approach week 1.

No. 9: Superback

No. 8: Secondary

No. 7: Offensive Line

No. 6: Special Teams

No. 5: Running Back

No. 4: Quarterback

No. 3: Defensive Line

Today we look at No. 2: Linebacker

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by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Projected starters: Damien Proby (junior), David Nwabuisi (senior), Chi Chi Ariguzo (sophomore)

Challengers: Collin Ellis (sophomore), Timmy Vernon (junior), Drew Smith (redshirt freshman)

Outside (Will) linebacker David Nwabuisi returns for his senior year after making 12 starts in 2011. (Photo courtesy David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

Strengths

This year's linebacker corps has an incredible combination of experience and depth. Three starters from last year — Proby, Nwabuisi and Ellis — are back, and Ellis won't even be starting, as Ariguzo has moved up the depth start after contributing as a backup during his redshirt freshman year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Ellis "1.B." on the depth chart, and while that's typically Fitzgerald's nice way of saying a guy is a good player, but still a backup, it actually applies to Ellis. NU will use a four-man rotation and Ellis will see plenty of the field.

The four starters are very versatile in their ability to play at different linebacker spots, and that will help NU with its rotation.

"“Collin can play Will and Sam, Chi Chi can play Will and Sam, Damien can play Will and Mike, David can play Will, Mike and Sam,” Fitzgerald said last week.

With so many different options, NU will always have an effective linebacker group on the field, and all of the four "starters" are experienced. Ariguzo doesn't have any starting experience, but he has played before and isn't new to the field, while Ellis started some games, though he battles a hand injury in preseason camp. Proby has been unheralded over the past season and offseason, but he played so well at middle linebacker that he earned a starting job there for the final seven games of the season, and he could garner some postseason award attention. Nwabuisi started 12 or 13 games at linebacker last year, shifting from the middle to the outside when Proby came in.

Even behind the top four, there is a lot of talent. Redshirt freshman Drew Smith has been impressive in camp and should see some time this year in a backup role, while junior Timmy Vernon has done the same. All six of those guys help make the linebackers the best unit on NU's defense.

Weaknesses

The depth is good in the sense that NU essentially has four starters for three spots and there are two promising players behind those starters. However, linebackers tend to be injury-prone, and if NU loses a couple of its starters, this unit could be very mediocre. Smith and Vernon have both looked good in camp, but there's a big difference between camp and the Big Ten. If a couple guys get injured, the linebackers could suffer like the secondary last year, when players were inserted into roles they weren't ready for.

Behind Vernon and Smith, there aren't a lot of great players, either. Senior Roderick Goodlow was moved from linebacker to defensive end and redshirt freshman Doug Diedrick was moved to super back, leaving Will Studlien, who will see most of his work on special teams — as the only player remaining at linebacker from the spring depth chart. It's unlikely that there will be enough injuries that NU's depth is truly that affected, but in football, nothing is certain.

The only other real issue with the linebackers is how bad the defense was in general last year, especially with communication. The linebackers are supposed to be the "quarterbacks of the defense" so they share some of the blame for NU's woes in pass defense. With so many new faces in the secondary, the linebackers are going to have to help out in pass coverage more than they might want to, and if they don't provide more help than they did last year, NU could see more struggles in pass defense, especially early in the year.