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Competition for starting SAM linebacker position heats up at fall practice

EVANSTON, Ill. — Position battles can always get awkward. With two teammates competing against one another for the same job, the aspect of being a part of a team can get lost. But it can also bring out the best in players as competition fuels them to play harder, faster and more focused. It can be a symbiotic relationship, a mutually beneficial one.

For linebackers Drew Smith and Collin Ellis, their friendship and respect for each other has created a healthy atmosphere for the competition to grow and ultimately make each player better. Being close to each other off the field helps to ease the tension on it.

“Me and Drew are goofballs,” Ellis, a junior, said. “He’s a year younger than me, obviously, and when he came in I took him under my wing and taught him what’s going on. We are just goofballs. We are friends. The linebackers are all buds. It’s good stuff.”

Both Smith and Ellis know that only one of them can be named the starter at SAM linebacker for Northwestern’s season opener at Cal on Aug. 31. That fact has only raised their play coming in to fall camp.

“If you get complacent, you slack,” Smith, a sophomore, said. “If there’s somebody trying to fight for your position, that forces you to bring it everyday to work on something. In every aspect, whether it’s film, eating right, taking care of your body, lifting, practice, everything, you have to compete because there’s someone working just as hard as you that wants your position. [Competition] keeps you motivated and level headed.”

After the departure of last season’s starting WILL linebacker David Nwabuisi, Chi Chi Ariguzo will slide over to the weak side creating a spot for either Smith or Ellis alongside returning starter Damien Proby at MIKE. In the spring, Smith worked with the first team at SAM while Ellis filled in for the injured Proby at MIKE. The experience playing MIKE, Ellis said, has helped him with his understanding of the defense.

“Playing MIKE gives you a holistic view of what the defense does from the linebacking core,” Ellis, who has spent time at each linebacker position, said. “You can understand where your help is coming from in different situations. You can be more aggressive and go out and make that play that you previously thought you couldn’t have made.”

For the first time since he entered camp before his redshirt freshman season, Ellis, who has battled injuries throughout his career at Northwestern, feels he is at full health. He says he is moving better than he ever has, a function of both his shedding of a few pounds and his increased knowledge of where he is supposed to be on the field at all times.

For Smith, who is known for his hard-hitting style of play, the biggest thing he needed to improve coming in to this season was his footwork and being able to play in space more as a SAM linebacker. But he says that in order to win the job he won’t be afraid to do what he does best: hit.

“I’m going to bring it every play,” Smith said. “Those wide receivers have to keep their head on a swivel because they know if they don’t look out for me they’re going to pay for it. That’s just how I approach the game. That’s what I live for. I play defense for a reason: I like to hit people. That’s my job. So when I get a chance to hit somebody and enforce my will on them, that’s what I’ll do.”

No matter who happens to win the starting job, both players will undoubtedly see action this season. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald even suggested putting them into a rotation.

"If [there is] a definite separation [between Smith and Ellis], you'll probably see one guy play more than the other," Fitzgerald said after practice Tuesday. "If it's close, we'll rotate them, keep them fresh and away we go."

After putting in the work all offseason, neither Smith nor Ellis said they would be satisfied with a time-share but both were confident in the other’s ability to fill in.

"I won’t be satisfied,” Smith said about splitting time with Ellis. “But I’ll embrace my role. Whatever is best for the team, I’ll do it. But, being a competitor, I don’t want to settle for half. I don’t want a piece of the pie, I want the whole thing.”

Like Smith, Ellis will do whatever it takes for the team to win and respects the coaches’ decision regardless of the outcome.

“As a competitor,” Ellis said, “no one really likes the idea of a rotation. But if that’s what the coaches go to, then that’s what we’re going to do. We back our coaches 100 percent. If that’s how they end up wanting to do it, that’s what we’re going to do. All we’re going to do is go out there, play as hard as we can every play and fight to win a Big Ten championship.”