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Northwestern Football Most Important Players — No. 5: Anthony Walker

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From unheralded recruit to breakout star, Anthony Walker was a freshman phenom in 2014. Can he be a sophomore star in 2015?

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.

We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.

One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

We're now into the top five, and in the fifth spot, we have sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Walker. Ben Goren and Zach Pereles discuss:

Ben Goren (Walker rank: 3): When Colin Ellis went down with injury and later retired last year, I know I was worried. Ellis was a stud who single-handedly won the Cal game for the Wildcats back in 2013. But that worry went away pretty quickly once Anthony Walker stunted all over Penn State, leading NU to victory behind 8 tackles and a pick six of Christian Hackenberg.

Walker wasn't a highly rated recruit by any metric. According to 247 Sports, he held a total of 3 offers from power conference teams: Northwestern, Purdue, and Minnesota. There was exactly zero buzz about Walker going into last season. He was a reserve backer on one of Northwestern's strongest units. But he ended the year with 7 starts, 51 tackles (9 for loss, a team high), 2 interceptions, and a darn impressive highlight reel.

Walker has upside, there's no doubt about it. Entering his redshirt sophomore year, he is going to have more career starts than either outside linebacker flanking him. I think he's the biggest story of Northwestern's defense. Zach, you ranked 7 players on the defense in your top 15, and Walker wasn't one of them. Why?

Zach Pereles (Walker rank: NR): You're right, Ben. Anthony Walker's an absolute beast. He's quick enough to drop back into coverage if needed (though that's not his strong suit) and he's certainly strong and athletic enough to make all the tackles he needs to make.

But to me, he's just not that important to this team's success, and part of your reasoning above is why. You mention that when Colin Ellis was ruled out and Walker stepped in, he made a big impact, and played very solidly throughout the rest of season. So why can't that happen again if Walker were to go down? I think linebacker is one of Northwestern's deepest units. Jalen Prater, although not the most athletic guy, is a smart football player and Brett Walsh is a great athlete who is looking to put past injury and off-field problems behind him. No, neither guy was highly recruited, but both have experience in the system, and there's no reason, to me, that either couldn't step in and be at the very least serviceable should Walker get hurt. Walker certainly impressed last year, but I think Northwestern also has strong options behind him.

Ben Goren: You can basically copy paste my reasoning for why Godwin Igwebuike is so important into this section about Anthony Walker. Walker showed flashes last year, but even more than Igwebuike, he had a bunch of freshman mistakes. I remember after the Penn State game when everyone was losing their mind over the game, Fitzgerald wasn't exactly quick to heap praise on the freshman. Walker is an athlete, but sometimes he'll miss an assignment filling a gap in the run game and allow a 3-yard gain to become a 10-yard gain. He's got a lot of maturing to do in year two.

I do agree that NU's linebackers are deep, as they seem to always be under Fitzgerald. But what happened last year is a complete aberration. Redshirt freshmen don't step into the middle linebacker role out of nowhere and play great. To use a cliché, MIKE linebacker is "the quarterback of the defense." Jaylen Prater may be really good (he certainly looked great in spring ball). But Walker has the potential to be Northwestern's best linebacker since who, Damien Proby? Nick Roach? Napoleon Harris?

His ceiling is so high, and if he can go from flashes of brilliance to consistent performer, Northwestern's defense is going to be very, very good. The defensive line should be solid with Lowry, Washington, Odenigbo, Kuhar, Robbins, and McEvily. The secondary is bringing back basically everyone off the two-deep. The linebacking unit is losing two starters in Jimmy Hall and Chi-Chi Ariguzo and a kinda-sorta starter in Collin Ellis. Walker needs to be the rock of the one inexperienced unit on NU's defense.

Zach Pereles: Walker's potential is definitely there, but I don't think that how good he is or can be determines how important he is or can be. Walker isn't so far ahead of anyone else that he makes a defense. He won't be a star on the national scene. He isn't a Ray Lewis or a Brian Urlacher. To me, importance is partially how much the team needs him to succeed and how much the team would suffer were he not playing. Middle linebacker is important on the field directing players around, noticing schemes and tendencies learned from film and, obviously, playing as well. But, honestly, if Walker were so important, the team wouldn't be able to survive without him. Right now, though, I think they could.

Ben Goren: NU's defense might survive sans Walker, but a linebacking corps without him would bring with them a grand total of seven starts between the three (assuming it's Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater, and Joseph Jones). That's significantly scarier than the 14 combined starts of Walker, Smith, and Jones. Northwestern is in the unfortunate position of having redshirt sophomores marshal their linebackers and their safeties. Walker has potential to be a game changer at middle linebacker or, if things go wrong, a weak spot in a weak position group. I think he'll be the former.

Staff Rankings

Ben Goren: 3 | Jason Dorow: 3 | Josh Rosenblat: 4 | Josh Burton: 4 | Ian McCafferty: 6  Michael Odom: 7 | Henry Bushnell: 7 | Kevin Dukovic: 8 | Zach Pereles: NR

Where would you have Walker ranked? Would any other defensive players be ahead of him?