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Northwestern football summer guide: Linebackers

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Will Anthony Walker emerge as a leader? Who will replace Chi Chi Ariguzo?

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. Let's check out the linebackers:

Overview

Returning Starters (Career Starts): Drew Smith (7) (Sr.), Anthony Walker (7) (So.)
Key Losses: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis, Jimmy Hall
Other Returning Players: Joseph Jones (Jr.), Nate Hall (RS Fr.), Anthony Pierce-Adams (RS Fr.), Josh Roberts (So.), Jaylen Prater (Jr.), Cameron Queiro (Rs Fr.), Brett Walsh (So.)
Incoming Freshmen: Tommy Vitale, Simba Short, Nathan Fox

For the past several years, Northwestern's defense has been anchored by good linebacker play. Fans were concerned about the loss of David Nwabuisi following the 2012 Gator Bowl season, but their worries quickly vanished as Collin Ellis sprinted across the goal line for his second pick-six during the 2013 opener at Cal. Many wondered how the defense would fare without three-year starting middle linebacker Damien Proby going into last season, yet Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall held their own as Ellis moved inside to replace Proby. When Ellis' career ended midway through last year, we were pleasantly surprised by then-rookie Anthony Walker. Now the mission is to replace two outside linebackers, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall.

Key player

Anthony Walker

Walker, along with Drew Smith, is one of only two returning linebackers from last year's rotation. He won Big Ten Freshman of the Week after his first ever start, recording eight tackles and returning an interception 49 yards for a touchdown against Penn State. The Miami native showed a lot of promise in 2014, especially considering he was thrown into the starting role mid-season.  He won't catch anyone by surprise this year; he is expected to emerge as the leader of the linebackers. Walker looks like the Incredible Hulk and, as evidenced by his two interception return touchdowns, he has the athleticism to be an elite player. A year of experience should correct the mental mistakes from his freshman campaign, which means we can anticipate a big year from the sophomore.

Biggest question

Who will replace Ariguzo at WILL?

Everyone expects Northwestern to regress at linebacker this year, mostly due to the loss of Chi Chi Ariguzo. In the two seasons he started at WILL, Ariguzo racked up a team-high 210 tackles. He also led NU in interceptions (4) in 2013. Of course nobody expects the new guy to make 100 tackles this year, but Ariguzo's successor, whoever it is, needs to perform. The weak side linebacker is a crucial run-stopping position in Northwestern's 4-3 scheme. Assuming the defensive line performs better than last year — which it should — some of the tackling load will be taken off the second level defenders.

We're less than two months away from the first game, and the starting job is still up for grabs. It appears the battle is between Joseph Jones, Brett Walsh and Nate Hall, though incoming freshman Tommy Vitale could be in the mix as well. None of the aforementioned players have played significant snaps since high school, and we have little evidence to identify any one of them as the front-runner as of now. One thing is for certain: inexperienced guys must rise to the occasion if Northwestern hopes to continue its tradition of solid linebacker play.

Projected Depth Chart

SAM MIKE WILL
1st String Drew Smith Anthony Walker Joseph Jones OR Brett Walsh OR Nate Hall
2nd String Nate Hall OR Cameron Queiro Jaylen Prater One of the above OR Tommy Vitale

We wouldn't bet on the accuracy of this depth chart outside of hard-hitting Drew Smith starting at SAM and Anthony Walker in the middle. Linebackers coach Randy Bates has been known to try different players at multiple positions, so the two-deep is little more than an educated guess. A veteran like Jaylen Prater could potentially see time at both MIKE and WILL should Bates decide he's the next best guy at either position.