Northwestern’s linebacker corps lost just one key contributor last year on an already stellar squad, and not surprisingly, it’s considered one of the Wildcats’ top position units again this year. With that in mind, you wouldn’t expect so much uncertainty surrounding the group.
However, with a battle brewing at SAM linebacker and last year’s starter at SAM, Chi Chi Ariguzo, switching to WILL, things are very much up in the air for NU’s linebackers, despite all of the talent and experience. It’s a learning process right now, but linebacker coach Randy Bates and head coach Pat Fitzgerald hope it can be an asset down the road.
No matter the personnel, the Wildcats’ linebacker corps is typically a model of flexibility. The older (and bigger) each linebacker gets, the more positions he is expected to learn.
“With our three freshmen coming in, usually we have our freshmen play one position because they haven’t played very much,” Bates said. “So the older guys have to be able to adjust like David Nwabuisi did last year — he played multiple positions.”
The veterans on this year’s defense certainly have that flexibility. Damien Proby started outside, but then switched to become the starter at MIKE linebacker. Collin Ellis has the ability to play WILL, MIKE and SAM. That flexibility helps minimize the effects of injuries.
“It just gives you the flexibility to play the next-best player,” Bates said.
Now Ariguzo is the latest to make the switch, taking over Nwabuisi’s spot at WILL after starting at SAM all of last season.
“He’s just gotten a lot bigger,” Bates said. “He’s 237 pounds right now, and as the guys get bigger, you like to move them in toward the box where the big linemen are. He was probably 225, 227 (last year).”
Oftentimes, it’s a progression from SAM to WILL. SAM linebackers have to be athletic because they’re often matched up on receivers, and given the kind of player NU recruits — Fitzgerald said the Wildcats like the recruit big safeties who can play linebacker — many of them start out at SAM.
“SAM is a position that’s really a strong safety, because most teams have a wide receiver out there anyways, so it’s an easy transition from safety SAM linebacker,” Bates said. “And then SAM linebackers, as they get bigger, as Chi Chi did, will move into the inside backer.”
Ellis could end up playing some SAM this year, but the two focusing on SAM — Smith and Joseph Jones — fit the mold well. Jones was recruited as a safety, but made the switch to linebacker this year. Smith has gotten better, but he’s still an athletic player who proved his ability to make plays on special teams, and a bit at linebacker, last year. He’s a big hitter with speed, meaning he can match up well on just about anyone.
“I think it’s my ability to play in space and make open field tackles,” Smith said of why he fits well at SAM. “I’m confident in space, so I feel like that’s a good part of why.”
But Smith will have competition for the SAM spot this fall from Ellis, who started two years ago, but has been hampered by injuries. Because Proby was sidelined this spring, Ellis has shifted into the MIKE linebacker role at times, meaning he hasn’t competed much directly against Smith. And regardless of whether Ellis wins a starting spot, he’ll find a way to see the field somehow.
“He’s a guy who’s had to play multiple positions,” Bates said, “and he fell back more because of injury than anything else, and he’s fighting his way back, so he’ll be okay.”
In that way, Ellis epitomizes an NU linebacker — versatile and flexible. The Wildcats may not know exactly how one of their best units will shape up once fall comes, but one thing is for sure: they’ll have options. In a sport where injuries can derail a season, that’s a valuable asset to have.