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2014 spring linebacker breakdown: how will NU adjust to losing Proby?

Returning starters: Collin Ellis (Sr.), Chi Chi Ariguzo (Sr.) 

Others returning: Anthony Walker (RS Fr.), Cole Johnson (RS Fr.), Joseph Jones (So.), Drew Smith (Jr.), Brett Walsh (RS Fr.), Eric Hauser (So.), Josh Roberts (RS Fr.), Jaylen Prater (So.), Michael Odom (So.) 

Incoming recruits: Nate Hall, Cameron Queiro

Biggest spring question: How much will losing Proby hurt?

We probably won’t know until we see the linebackers play a few games this season. Since we’re more than six months out from Northwestern’s opener against Cal, the only thing we can do is project how big of a loss Proby will be. I’m just going to go right ahead and say it: Proby will be a big loss. He started 12 games at MIKE linebacker, led NU in tackles and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten. He was one of the Wildcats’ most consistent performers.

The good news for NU is it has enough talent and depth to replace Proby without having to worry about a big dropoff in performance at his position. Linebacker is one of NU’s stronger positions, so it should be OK without him. The more important issue is who will play where now that Proby is gone. That’s one of the things I’ll try to figure out while watching spring practice. But this is a spring preview; you can’t avoid looking ahead and making predictions.

Here’s what I think the linebacking corps could look like. Ellis, who started at SAM linebacker last season, could slide over to MIKE, Proby’s old position. Smith, a backup at WILL last season, could move over to SAM. That means Ariguzo would stay at WILL, the position he played (and racked up 106 tackles at) last season. I won’t try to guess where certain backups will play, but there does look to be some quality depth at each of the three linebacker spots. Prater and Jones (and maybe Walker) should all see plenty of snaps this season.

To reiterate: this is just a projection of what I think the linebacking corps could look like. Most of Northwestern’s linebackers are versatile enough to play multiple positions, so it’ll be interesting to see how coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mike Hankwitz lines them up in spring workouts. But the basic point remains that – barring a major injury – NU should be able to absorb the loss of Proby and still field a quality linebacker unit. Ariguzo was one of NU’s best players last season, Ellis made a number of a big plays and Smith played well when called upon.

Losing Proby hurts, but it won’t cripple NU’s linebacking corps.

Position battles:

Here’s what’s sort of weird about the linebackers this year: it’s easy to identify the three players who, almost definitely, will start. I just don’t know where to slot them. Ariguzo thrived at WILL last season after playing at SAM as a sophomore. It would make sense for him to stay at WILL in 2014, so let’s assume he will. He won’t have any competition for that spot.

I think Ellis is the most likely candidate to replace Proby at MIKE. Ellis started at SAM last season, but is versatile enough to play WILL. Given how well Ariguzo played there last season, though, putting Ellis in the middle seems like a logical move.

The SAM spot could go to Smith, who was a backup at WILL last season. NU likes to put quicker players who can make plays in space at SAM. Smith fits the bill and, remember, last preseason he battled with Ellis for the starting spot at SAM. I think he’ll start this year.

The backups aren’t as easy to sort out, and it’s probably best to wait until spring practice is over to guess who has the best chance of playing where. I feel fairly confident that Prater will end up at MIKE; he played there the first three games of last season before suffering an injury. Walker is athletic enough to fill in behind Smith at SAM, while Jones, a backup at SAM last season, could move over to WILL.

It’s often the case that linebackers – some of whom are recruited as safeties and converted to linebackers – at NU start out at SAM and move over to WILL. Whether Jones, a safety coming out of high school, is ready to make that switch is unclear. 

Our best guess at the depth chart:

SAM linebacker – Drew Smith, Anthony Walker
MIKE linebacker – Collin Ellis, Jaylen Prater
WILL linebacker – Chi Chi Ariguzo, Joseph Jones