Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
Linebacker was Northwestern’s best position unit last season. There are no hard counting statistics to prove this, in part because football lags well behind basketball when it comes to gauging defensive value, but if you turn the argument on its exclusively subjective side, if you believe what your eyes tell you, it is easy to make a case for the linebackers as the Wildcats’ premier position group in 2012. David Nwabuisi was the emotional leader the Wildcats needed on defense, and he chipped in a career-high 97 tackles to boot. Damien Proby bossed the middle of the field. Chi Chi Ariguzo showed flashes of stardom. The unit was whole and complete and stable. It was everything one media outlet said it wasn’t.
Only one piece (Nwabuisi) of that starting group left this offseason, and the two candidates vying to replace him will have a lot to say about whether the Wildcats LBs can finish this season as one of (if not the) Wildcats best units anew. We won’t know the specific alignment of the linebacking corps until training camp runs its course, but our most accurate assessment to date, given what we saw/heard during spring practice is as follows: Proby will start at middle linebacker (MIKE), Ariguzo will move from SAM to WILL and Drew Smith and Collin Ellis are expected to compete for the SAM linebacker spot in training camp.
There is no reason to expect anything less than a reprisal of last year’s quietly proficient performances from Ariguzo and Proby. That leaves the SAM spot open to some degree of uncertainty, which is why any combination of Ellis and Smith needs to step into the starting spot to ensure last season’s standard carries over into 2013. There were moments in spring training when I thought Smith had separated himself, but Ellis – who, let’s remember, was a starter before running into injury issues – made a strong impression throughout and appears to have closed the gap to the point where, heading into preseason camp, this battle looks like a dead heat.
With Smith, you get speed, athleticism, sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability, and an instinctual knack for running down ball carriers just before they manage to turn plays upfield. Ellis isn’t anywhere near as agile as Smith; he is a more forceful open-field tackler and possesses more experience after having logged significant playing time in 2011 (along with his injury-addled 2012 campaign).
In the end, it’s completely possible we’re framing the linebacker position battle incorrectly – that the versatile Ellis (or Smith) will serve as NU’s primary reserve option, switching between linebacker spots, with Smith instead competing against either of Joseph Jones, Timmy Vernon, Jaylen Prater or Eric Wilson for the starting SAM spot. Perhaps Ariguzo will line up on the strong side, turning WILL into the position of contestation.
Training camp will offer clues at first, and answers at the finish. All we can do in July is speculate, debate and write about these things in the hope we really know what we’re talking about. If the position battles at linebacker aren’t as simple as an Ellis-Smith one-man-takes-all contest implies, think about it this way: Ellis and Smith are two of Northwestern’s best four or five linebackers available. One will likely receive starter’s playing time, but not both.
The construction of the linebacking corps, stable as it may seem after losing just one starter, is an interesting topic for consideration as we slowly, mercilessly, agonizingly approach training camp. Football is near, patience.