Returning starters: Damien Proby (Sr), Chi Chi Ariguzo (Jr)
Others returning: Drew Smith (So), Collin Ellis (Jr), Joseph Jones (RS Fr), Timmy Vernon (Sr), Eric Wilson (RS Fr), Jaylen Prater (RS Fr), Michael Odom (RS Fr)
Depth Chart Projection
SAM (strongside) — Drew Smith OR Collin Ellis, Joseph Jones
MIKE (inside) — Damien Proby, Timmy Vernon
WILL (weakside) — Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis
Explaining the Depth Chart:
There are two returning starters, but only one player is returning to the same position as last year. Damien Proby will be NU's starting middle linebacker for the third straight year, while last year's SAM linebacker, Chi Chi Ariguzo, will switch to WILL to replace David Nwabuisi. The biggest battle will be at SAM, where Drew Smith will take on Collin Ellis. Smith started at SAM in the spring, while Ellis filled in for the injured Proby at MIKE, but there will be a competition at SAM this fall.
NU's experienced linebackers are all versatile, so Ellis, in particular, could still see a lot time at all three positions even if he doesn't start. For this reason, playing time is still a fluid situation among NU's top four linebackers. In addition to Vernon and Jones, expect Eric Wilson and Jaylen Prater to both see some time as backups, as well.
Stock Up: Drew Smith
After showcasing his hard-hitting abilities on special teams and on defense last year, Smith looks ready to have a breakout season for NU at SAM linebacker. He's a big player, but he also has an incredible amount of athleticism, and that has led to some highlight reel plays. Here's what Pat Fitzgerald had to say about him:
“He thoroughly enjoys contact. I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody’s lips off, and he goes around doing that.”
Smith elaborated: “That’s always been a part of my personality. Everybody knows that’s what I do. I like to hit people.”
Smith has real breakout potential this year, but he has to win his position battle first. But regardless of what happens in his competition with Ellis, he showcased his potential this spring and will be a major player in the defense for the next three years.
Stock Down: Nobody
You could say that by Smith's stock rising, Ellis' stock naturally must go down. But while Smith certainly is proving himself to be a worthy contender for the spot at SAM linebacker next year, it's hard to judge that battle yet. Ellis had to fill in for Proby at MIKE this spring, so he hasn't gotten a chance to compete for a starting spot. He'll get that chance in the fall.
Overall, everyone who we know is good still is good, and all of the young guys seem to be getting in quality reps. It's tough to really call out anyone after this spring.
Position Battle: SAM — Drew Smith vs. Collin Ellis
We're mentioned this a number of times, but it's the only real position battle among the linebackers. Really, both of these guys are starting caliber, and both will see significant playing time — Ellis will see time at different linebacker positions, too — but only one can start. Both bring something different to the table. Ellis was a starter, but injuries slowed him down. He lost his starting spot to Chi Chi Ariguzo last year and played in only 10 games because of injuries. Now that Ellis is injury-free, linebacker coach Randy Bates said Ellis is ready to take on the role he had as a sophomore.
However, Ellis has stiff competition from Smith, who has the talent to be a three-year starter, and fits the SAM profile well due to his combination of size and athleticism. Expect this battle to progress well into fall camp, especially since Ellis and Smith rarely competed head-to-head in the spring
Biggest Offseason Question: Can the unit be better than last year?
Last year, the linebacker corps was the best unit on NU's defense. Proby continued his consistent climb to stardom, Nwabuisi stepped up as a senior and Ariguzo emerged as a surprisingly productive player. Nwabuisi is gone, but Proby and Ariguzo return, and the combination of Ellis and Smith gives the Wildcats a very formidable group of linebackers once again. In fact, this unit has the potential to be even better than last year's. That's good, because NU might need it.
While the linebackers were the backbone of last year's defense, the defensive line — particularly defensive tackle — was impressive. NU's run defense went from 10th in the Big Ten in 2011 to third in the conference in 2012. That was due, in large part, to the defensive tackles, and particularly senior Brian Arnfelt. Arnfelt graduated after last year, leaving a void at defensive tackle. Sean McEvilly, Chance Carter and Will Hampton have all shown promise there, but they don't have enough experience to expect the interior defensive line to be just as good as it was last year, at least not right away. That means more responsibility falls on the linebackers to help stop the run. It will be a tough task, but this group has the talent to be even better than last year's unit. Now it's time to see if they live up to the billing.
Northwestern Has Options at Linebacker (April 14)