With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.
All last week we looked at the offensive side of the ball for Northwestern. This week we switch sides to the more dominant unit, the defense. Today we take a look at Northwestern's best position group, the linebackers.
Anthony Walker Jr.: A+
113 tackles (58 solo, 55 assisted), 19.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 1 int, 4 pass breakups, 2 QB hits, 1 Forced Fumble, 3 fumble recoveries, 1 TD
What more can be said that would sum up the season Anthony Walker just had? The redshirt sophomore was All-Big Ten and All-American, Northwestern's leading tackler and probably Northwestern's best player. He had 10 or more tackles in six games, including a 19-tackle effort against Duke. Walker was second in the nation with 19.5 tackles for loss, which was also third-most in Northwestern single season history. His 113 tackles were 40 more than any other Northwestern player (Godwin Igwebuike had 73). The list goes on and on. In case you missed it, Anthony Walker was really good in 2015.
All of these stats are great but they're only a part of why Walker gets a perfect grade. Before the season, the questions about Walker were if he could step up in his second full season and be a leader of the defense. Well, he not only answered those questions, he obliterated them. Walker exceeded anyone's expectations for him this season and rose to become one of the best linebackers in not only the Big Ten, but the entire nation.
Drew Smith: A
54 tackles (32 solo, 22 assisted), 8.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 3 QB hits, 1 forced fumble
While he wasn't quite the monster that Walker was, Drew Smith had a really good season for the Wildcats. Fourth on the team in tackles and tackles for loss and fifth in sacks. Smith was somewhat unheralded since he plays next to Walker, but he came up big when he needed to. Against Purdue, Smith had both of his sacks in huge situations to force Boilermaker punts and ultimately help Northwestern escape with the win. Smith did occasionally have trouble in coverage, which is what bumps him down a bit, and being directly compared to Walker doesn't help either. At no point in 2015 did Drew Smith really amaze you with his speed or size, but he was out there every snap making plays.
Nate Hall: A
50 tackles (22 solo, 28 assisted), 2.5 TFLs, 2 pass breakups, 4 QB hits
Nate Hall was a backup for the first eight games of the season, but when Jaylen Prater went down against Penn State, the redshirt freshman was more than ready to go. Hall finished fifth on the team in tackles even though he only started three games at linebacker. In the four games in which he saw extended playing time, he averaged nine tackles. Hall didn't do a lot early in the season, but he earns this grade for the job he did when his number was called. In his first full game, he helped make the game-saving tackle of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley on third-and-one and was one of Northwestern's best defensive players down the stretch. With Drew Smith graduating, it looks like Anthony Walker may have found his new running mate.
Jaylen Prater: B+
46 tackles (25 solo, 21 assisted), 1.0 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, 1 pass breakup
Jaylen Prater was putting together a really solid season before he got hurt against Penn State. Even though he missed the last four games, he still finished sixth on the team in tackles. Just like Drew Smith, Prater isn't the athletic freak that Walker is, but he usually got the job done. He doesn't have the flashy impact stats, but he was there to wrap up an opposing player whenever needed. The only thing that bumps his grade down a bit is that he had a decent amount of trouble in pass coverage. While teams didn't exploit this too much-- generally Hall was on the field for passing downs--it was one of the few flaws of the entire position group. Other than that, Prater was just like the rest of the linebackers: really good.