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Spring Linebackers Breakdown: Can This Group Be Better Than Last Season?

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The group of linebackers that takes the field this spring will not be complete. Arguably the most important of the lot, Damien Proby, will not participate in team workouts. There are two ways to look at this development. On the one hand, not having your senior leader developing chemistry with his teammates and fleshing out the most remedial elements of preseason preparation – it’s only springtime – is not the best way to showcase a position group that, much like last season, is expected to be one of this team’s biggest strengths. The other side is more optimistic. With Proby sitting out, other players will have more opportunities to prove they deserve playing time next season.

Positions and playing time are never earned in spring practice. Strong impressions and transformed coaches’ opinions are achievable. The linebacker crew will offer an early glimpse of what to expect in the fall, and that’s the broader theme for every position unit in spring practice. More important is figuring out who regressed, who stood pat and who moved forward since the end of last season.

Returning starters: Mike (middle) LB: Damien Proby*, Sam (strongside) LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo

Others returning: Eric Wilson, Collin Ellis, Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater, Eric Hauser, Timmy Vernon, Jimmy Hall*, Ifeadi Odenigbo*, Joseph Jones

Incoming recruits: Anthony Walker, Brett Walsh 

Biggest Spring Question: Can This Group Be Better Than Last Season?

There was talk in the preseason about the linebackers being the best such group at their position since Pat Fitzgerald inherited the head coaching job in 2006. The optimism was well-understood: senior David Nwabuisi, junior Damien Proby and sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo led a formidable group, with a stable of solid reserves (Drew Smith, Timmy Vernon, Colin Ellis, to name a few) waiting in the wings. The biggest concern was whether the defensive line and the secondary, two units we’ve already addressed thus far, would force the linebackers into covering vast expanses, leaving the middle of the field vulnerable to short passing plays and dismantling the spacing and organization of the linebackers – whether overcompensating for the other units’ shortcomings would stretch the linebackers to leave the middle of the field and help out elsewhere.

As the season rolled along, the defensive line held up better than expected, and the secondary weathered various injuries, the linebackers were able to concentrate on their primary responsibilities. The end result was exactly what everyone predicted before the season began. With Nwabuisi serving as the emotional and on-field leader – of not just the linebackers, but the defense as a whole – the linebackers reached their preseason projections. Ariguzo quickly surfaced as one of the Big Ten’s best young defensive talents and was named an All Big-Ten honoree for his efforts. Nwabuisi, another All-Big Ten honoree, finished ranked 13th in the Big Ten with 7.46 tackles per game, and was also named to the Butkus Award Watch List. And Proby, not to be forgotten, accrued a career-high 112 tackles on the season, the most of any NU Player. Oh, and in case you thought the Big Ten offices didn’t notice, Proby, too, was an All-conference honorable mention.

The legacy this group leaves behind puts an enormous burden on the next set of NU linebackers. The upshot is that only one starter, Nwabuisi, is gone, which means this group has a big advantage from the start: continuity. Proby and Ariguzo will marshal the troops this season, and players like Ellis, Smith and Vernon (and perhaps even Jimmy Hall; his position, as of this writing, is unclear) will all play a significant part in the linebacker formula. We won’t know whether or not this year’s charges can top last season’s linebacking corps, whether Nwabuisi’s departure – and all the emotional benefits he provided – will erode this group’s cohesion and toughness, whether Ariguzo and Proby can become more vocal leaders.

There are a lot of questions to be asked, and some of them may be answered this spring. Uncertainty will loom, and positional specifics will linger; that’s practically a constant of every spring practice session. As Northwestern’s linebacking corps goes, spring practice will be about the simple things. Above all the position battles and injuries and the ever-present threat of freshmen stealing playing time, there is one common goal this time of the year. Arguably Northwestern’s strongest position group last season will start anew on what it hopes is another successful campaign.

Position Battles

Weakside (will) linebacker: Collin Ellis vs. Drew Smith vs. Jimmy Hall vs. Joseph Jones

Few position battles will be as heated and hotly-contested as this one. Both Ellis and Smith have experience at both outside linebacker spots (Sam and Will), and it’s entirely possible either could wind up providing relief help behind Ariguzo on the strongside. Ellis is relentless in ball pursuit and a better pure open-field tackler. He also has more starting experience, having played with the first team in 10 games in 2011. Meanwhile, Smith and Jones are quicker, more agile, and better-equipped to handle short passing routes and drop back in coverage.

An interesting player to watch here is Hall. His inclusion in the linebacker rotation is not a guarantee. He may end up playing nickelback or safety this season, but if he does enter the discussion for the final linebacker opening, Hall’s athleticism and ferocious tackling could make a great fit at the position. In the end, Smith, Ellis, Jones and Hall are all great athletes, each armed with their own unique style. Coaching preferences and team workouts can change things between now and the summer, but the hope is that spring workouts will at least allow for a clearer picture of who will enter preseason workouts as the favorite to land the job.

Our best guess at the depth chart

1. Chi Chi Ariguzo
2. Collin Ellis
3. Eric Hauser

1. Damien Proby
2. Timmy Vernon
3. Jaylen Prater

1. Drew Smith
2. Jimmy Hall
3. Joseph Jones

*Proby will not participate in spring workouts.

*Hall is listed as a linebacker for the purpose of this preview piece. It is not clear whether he will play a different position this season. His outlook for the upcoming season was also addressed in the spring secondary preview. 

*It is widely expected Odenigbo will play defensive end this season, despite his official listing on the official Northwestern roster at linebacker. In the interest of not disrupting the expected positional hierarchy, Odenigbo is not included in my projected depth chart.

Check out our analysis on the other positions: QuarterbackDefensive line, Secondary