Spring practice has now finished up for Northwestern and over the past couple of months we've been able to learn about how each position group is shaping up for the fall. Following the "spring game" we will be posting group reviews detailing "The Good," "The Bad" and "The Biggest Question" facing each group. We start first with the defensive line.
Northwestern flaunted its depth at the linebacker position during spring practices. With Drew Smith missing both open practices and Anthony Walker missing the first practice and limited in the second practice, the second level of the Wildcat defense still looked great.
We already knew that Anthony Walker is an instinctive player with huge upside and that Drew Smith is a terrifying mix of size and speed. But with those two unavailable, the second stringers got a lot of run.
Jaylen Prater and Nate Hall were surprisingly active. Prater lit some people up and Hall was making plays all over the yard. The projected third starter, Joseph Jones, made maybe the play of the spring (from what we could see), tracking down Warren Long 30 yards downfield and punching the ball out on the sidelines.
NU, it seems, has reloaded at the linebacker position even with Jimmy Hall and Chi Chi Ariguzo graduating.
We didn't get to see the full first team of linebackers once this spring. I'm not especially torn up about it, since I think Drew Smith and Anthony Walker should be the least of NU's concerns, but it was unfortunate. Mostly because I like seeing Drew Smith vaporize ball carriers.
But with those two missing either all or some of spring ball, we're forced to make judgments based on a unit that isn't the same as it's going to be when NU welcomes in Stanford. Plus, some people think that by the time game action comes, Traveon Henry will be moved from safety to the linebacker corps. We didn't see any evidence of that either, which is to be expected. There's no reason for the coaching staff to tip their hand with Big Ten Network cameras in the building.
The Biggest Question
Who's starting at the WILL position?
Pat Fitzgerald more or less said that Anthony Walker will be starting at the MIKE, and it'd be nothing short of shocking if Drew Smith ended up not starting at the SAM. Joseph Jones is projected as the third starter at the WILL, but I don't think that's set in stone.
With Nate Hall and Jaylen Prater both being very talented alternatives and Traveon Henry threatening to pull a Jimmy Hall, there's still a lot that could happen between now and Stanford. Outside of the quarterback battle, the last starting linebacker spot could well be the biggest camp battle in the fall.
The good news is that no matter who gets the spot, it shouldn't be a weakness for the defense. Most position groups, at one point or another, have had an off season in the last 10 or so years. The linebacker corps, however, just seems to reload with playmakers.