The Inside NU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern's spring football practice. Practice starts February 25 and runs through the spring "game" on April 11, with a break for finals and the school's regularly scheduled spring break. We'll run through each position unit to let you know what to watch once practice begins.
Returning Staters: Anthony Walker (So.), Drew Smith (Sr.)
Other Returning Players: Eric Hauser (Jr.), Anthony Pierce (RS Fr.), Jaylen Prater (Jr.), Cameron Queiro (RS Fr.), Josh Roberts (So.), Brett Walsh (So.), Nathan Hall (RS Fr.), Joseph Jones (Jr.)
Incoming Recruits: Nathan Fox, Tommy Vitale
Biggest Spring Question: Can Northwestern develop depth in an otherwise thin position group?
For much of 2014, Northwestern had five starting-caliber linebackers on its roster: Colin Ellis, his eventual replacement Anthony Walker, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall. Hall, Ariguzo and Ellis are all gone, leaving Walker and Smith as the only entrenched starters with any relevant experience on the defense's second level.
That leaves one starting spot open without a clear front runner. Joseph Jones, who will be a junior in the fall, seems to be the at the top of the short list in terms of known commodities but he only recorded five tackles while playing mostly on special teams in 2014. Jaylen Prater, also a junior-to-be, is in a similar situation.
This spring will also be extremely important for redshirt freshmen Cameron Queiro and Nathan Hall, who are both going through their first spring practices and workouts. This will really be the first time the coaches will be able to work with them extensively on position-specific skills without worrying about scheme. Depending on how much those two players develop, they could factor in to the defensive two-deep in 2015.
The most unorthodox way for Pat Fitzgerald to add depth to the linebacker group is to move players from the deeper safety position down to linebacker. The two most likely candidates are senior Traveon Henry and redshirt freshman Jared McGee. Both players are big as far as safeties go (six-foot-one and 220 pounds each). Fitzgerald has moved players between defensive levels before with the most recent example being Jimmy Hall. Henry plays like a linebacker even from his safety position and has the body type to move into the box but by no means is a move set in stone.
Walker and Smith have their spots locked down, it seems. As for the third, or weak-side (WILL) linebacker, the position is wide open. As previously mentioned, Jones and Prater are the most experienced but haven't shown evidence of being able to compete as a Big Ten-level starting linebacker. That opens the door for Queiro and Hall. But neither player seemed to develop at the ideal pace throughout the fall to step in as the leading candidate to take the job in the spring.
Right now, the spot is open for Henry. Especially with the talented Kyle Queiro already pushing him at the safety position since the fall, Henry seems like an ideal candidate to fill Ariguzo's void on the left side.
The biggest wildcard in this battle, though, won't arrive until the summer in the form of freshman Nathan Fox. Although he was reportedly recruited as a middle linebacker, the Texas native is an impressive tackler that already possesses good size and instincts. It remains to be seen how the player with offers from Oregon and Mississippi State will match up against college talent. But his emergence could throw a wrench in the race for the starting job.
Projected Depth Chart
SAM - Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater
MIKE - Anthony Walker, Brett Walsh
WILL - Traveon Henry/Joseph Jones, Nathan Fox