by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
The Northwestern linebacker corps has lofty goals this season, not just for the team, but for the unit itself.
“The linebackers overall, we’re trying to be the face of this defense,” middle linebacker Damien Proby said. “That’s something we’re trying to push the page for.”
Considering how its played in the first two games of the season, the unit is off to a good start. Chi Chi Ariguzo, Proby and David Nwabuisi rank 2, 3 and 4 on the defense with 17, 15 and 14 tackles, respectively. Ariguzo was the Big Ten defensive player-of-the-week after his performance against Vanderbilt, which included 10 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and a sack. Nwabuisi had seven tackles, a fumble recovery and two pass break-ups against the Commodores, while Proby starred against Syracuse, finishing with 10 tackles.
“We’ve been happy,” Proby said. “We know we all have room for improvement as a corps on defense, but as linebackers in general, we see our mistakes.”
The improvement from week one to week two was noticeable. The linebackers locked down in coverage and helped create pressure on the quarterback, making things easier for the inconsistent secondary.
“We had a very good week of practice Vanderbilt week, and this week as well, to try to improve,” Proby said. “You can never be satisfied. We knew, coming in from the Syracuse game that Vanderbilt would try to attack us in the air, so we had to put a cap on it.”
After giving up 470 passing yards to Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, the Wildcats did “put a cap” on the passing offense against Vanderbilt, holding Commodores quarterback Jordan Rodgers to just 217 yards.
Part of the reason for the improved pass defense was NU’s pass rush, which was aided by both the defensive line and the linebackers. The pressure came from across the board. In addition to Ariguzo’s three tackles-for-loss and sack, Nwabuisi had half a tackles for loss. Proby and redshirt freshman Drew Smith did things that “don’t show up on the stat sheet” — as coach Pat Fitzgerald likes to say — by creating pressure in the offensive backfield.
Smith, a speedy outside linebacker, said the pass rush is his main focus, and that he’s been happy with his introduction to college football.
“That’s my goal — to affect the quarterback as much as I can, so that’s something I work on,” he said. “I’ve been happy with my performance. I’ve been out there a few times, but the time I’ve been out there I’ve feel like I’ve done well and helped the team out.”
Perhaps the greatest asset of this unit is the depth. In addition to the starters — Ariguzo, Proby and Nwabuisi — Collin Ellis is like a “1.B.” player, as Fitzgerald likes to say, rather than second string. Smith has provided a nice boost, as well, giving NU a four-player rotation, as well as a solid backup.
NU also has a diverse linebacker corps, in that it has two veterans in Proby and Nwabuisi, a player who has started before this year in Ellis, and young players in Ariguzo and Smith. That mixture, and having veteran players to mentor the younger guys, has helped the unit progress.
“That’s a big help because you watch film with (the veterans) and they show you some things they know, so they give you tips because they’ve been there,” Smith said. “They’re juniors or seniors so they help you out; they show you the ropes.”
While NU’s linebackers are working to be the best unit on the defense, winning and playing well as a whole are what is most important. So if the defensive line steals the spotlight again, like it did for a good part of Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt, nobody on the linebacker corps will be complaining.
“The more plays they make — and this is something they know — we’ll be happy just as well,” Proby said.