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This Year vs. Last Year: Linebackers

This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the linebackers.

Key Losses: David Nwabuisi

Returning Starters: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby

Other Key Returning Players: Drew Smith, Collin Ellis, Joseph Jones, Timmy Vernon

Why 2012 Was Better: There's not much of a case for 2012 being better than 2013, other than the potential that there could be injuries that would cause regression. However, without injuries, there's not much of a debate. Just about the only way the linebackers could end up worse than last year is if Damien Proby isn't himself after returning from injury, Chi Chi Ariguzo can't handle the switch to WILL (weakside linebacker) from SAM (strongside linebacker) and Drew Smith/Collin Ellis don't live up to their expectations. That's not very likely.

Why 2013 Will Be Better: Two of three starters are back, and both figure to be just as good in 2013. Proby has been a consistent force in the middle of the field, and he could be up for some All-Big Ten honors this year. Ariguzo burst onto the scene last year at SAM, and now he'll shift over to take Nwabuisi's spot at WILL. That duo gives NU a lot of veteran experience on its linebacker corps, and two potential All-Big Ten selections — at least to one of the "teams" — in the fall.

At SAM, there's uncertainty, but also optimism. Drew Smith looks like a potential breakout candidate after showing of his great athleticism and big-hitting ability as a redshirt freshman in 2012. He'll battle with Collin Ellis, who has starting experience, for the SAM spot. Overall, the Wildcats have four starting-caliber linebackers, and the potential for some young players like Smith to grow and become even better than expected.

This Year or Last Year: This Year

Last year, the linebacker corps was arguably the best unit on the defense, and that figures to be the case once again this year. However, the 2013 version should be even better than the 2012 version. Damien Proby will be his usual, productive self, while Ariguzo emerged as a consistent player last year, and it's reasonable to expect more of the same — if not more — from him as he switches to WILL. We pegged Smith as a potential breakout player this year, and considering his improvement throughout last year and during spring ball, he could end up being NU's surprise player on defense this year.

Overall, it's tough to see how this unit could get worse from last year. Obviously, it's not ideal to lose Nwabuisi, but the other, younger linebackers are getting better and ready to take on major roles. Even the depth is good. As we mentioned, the Wildcats have four starting-caliber players in Proby, Ariguzo, Smith and Ellis, and they have an emerging young SAM linebacker in safety convert Joseph Jones. This could end up being one of the best linebacker crops in the Big Ten, and it certainly will be one of the best units for NU this fall.

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Past entries: Defensive line