Northwestern has two young studs on defense that will look to lead what could be a very strong unit as a whole this season. In the middle of it all is Anthony Walker, who burst onto the scene last season against Penn State when Collin Ellis was unavailable. In the secondary, Godwin Igwebuike had a similarly impressive debut against Wisconsin. In both players' starting debuts, the Wildcats pulled off upsets. Both players are just sophomores this year. Now we debate: Which player should we be more excited about for the future?
Zach Pereles: First of all, what a great debate to even be able to have. Both of these guys are outstanding athletes and football players. To even be debating this is a huge positive for the Northwestern program. Nevertheless, I have to take a side, and I think Godwin Igwebuike is the player to be more excited about. Remember when Wisconsin came rolling into town, Ibraheim Campbell was hurt, and the Wildcats would be starting Igwebuike at safety in place of the current Cleveland Brown? Melvin Gordon did Melvin Gordon things to the defense-- 259 yards, my goodness-- and yet his team still lost (it was a really fun/purple gamethread). Why? Oh yeah, the guy replacing Ibraheim Campbell-- Godwin Igwebuike-- had three interceptions (the first Wildcat to do that since Neil Little in 1973(!!!)), including one hugely important one in his own endzone and another one with just seconds to go to seal the victory. If that game alone wasn't enough to prove how good the guy was-- and how good he can be in the future-- consider that he had at least five tackles in five of the six games following that win in Evanston. It's one thing if he had just had one outstanding game. It's another thing if he followed it up with strong performances. Igwebuike did just that.
Josh Rosenblat: Both Igwebuike and and Walker filled in last year for veterans and leaders of Northwestern's defense and both were monsters in their respective debuts. When Walker filled in for senior Collin Ellis at middle linebacker, he led Northwestern in a dominating upset at Penn State with eight tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. He was all over the field, making high-impact plays all over the field. I re-watched the supercut of all the plays he was involved in during that game and it got me so hyped for his sophomore year. Here's the video so you can get on my level of hype-ness, Zach:
You see that? Good.
After that game, former Northwestern linebacker Nate Williams wrote a column in which he analyzed Walker's first start. His words, not mine:
"We all knew Godwin Igwebuike was capable of playing in for Campbell, but man did Anthony Walker come out of nowhere. This kid is something special. Watching this game, I thought to myself that this is a breed of middle linebacker that Northwestern has never seen. Flying over the field, through gaps, blitzing and pressuring the QB, and looked great in pass coverage. What a great way to start your first game. I thought Hankwitz was going to have to blitz him a lot to make him fly around in order to take away too many mistakes, which he did, but at least from without watching the film, I don't think it would have mattered. Kid's got some swagger to him too."
Anthony Walker is the real deal and a real candidate to be a breakout star. Now, I'm not saying that Igwebuike isn't gonna be as good as you think he is, I just know Walker will be better. Igwebuike, right now, is arguably the third or fourth best player in the defensive backfield, behind Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose, and probably about even with Traveon Henry. Walker is THE GUY at linebacker. The defense will be predicated on his ability to make plays in the middle of Northwestern's defense, and he's proven time and time again in a starting role last season that he is capable of making those plays.
Two more things. First off, he tweeted this photo from Northwestern's picture day:
He's ready for his sophomore season.
Second, he's a bonafide genius, who may have discovered the key to waking up happy every morning.
This dude @__AWalkJr sets an alarm for 2:30am just so he can wake up and get happy he has 3 more hours of sleep...— Nate Hall Y'all (@NateHall32) July 8, 2015
An eternal optimist that finds the most seemingly ridiculous things to make him happy.
It's the combination of those two traits -- the intimidating presence and the youthful exuberance -- that make Walker the player I am most excited about now and for the future.
Zach Pereles: I love that Northwestern has found a philosopher and absolute stud at middle linebacker. But in the secondary, Igwebuike plays a crucial role. You bring up that he's not one of the top two guys in that secondary-- something that may be true but speaks more to the skill Northwestern has at the position. See, Godwin can make this secondary ungodly good. Like really good. Like three All-Big Ten teamers good. You point to Anthony Walker being the man at the linebacker position, but he won't make that unit great. He's a great player, but he can't make that unit great alone. That's why I'm so excited for Godwin this year. He's a guy who could make this secondary one to remember. An all-time great Northwestern secondary.
Also, the most exciting time I can remember in my time as a Northwestern fan is when I rushed the field last year after the Wildcats defeated Wisconsin. Godwin's three interceptions are the main reason he's remembered for being the hero that day, but people are quick to forget that he made a chase-down tackle of Melvin Gordon. That's right. A chase-down tackle on Melvin Gordon, who had already galloped 58 yards on just the second play of the game before Godwin came from the other side of the field to catch the current San Diego Charger. I couldn't find video-- only pictures-- but it went somewhat like this:
No one chases down Tony Dorsett except Darrell Green. No one chases down Melvin Gordon except Godwin Igwebuike. Finally, Godwin's name means "friend of God" and if you're not hype that you have a friend of God in your team's secondary, then I'm not quite sure what will get you excited.
Josh Rosenblat: I'm not going to argue that the secondary is not a better position group than the linebackers. That's insane. But that's also not the debate we are having. Because of his position at middle linebacker, Walker will have an opportunity to impact almost every play. As a freshman, he showed glimpses of being able to do that effectively, disrupting opponents' plays in both the run and pass games. Now with the entire defense centered on him, Walker will make the entire defensive unit go. Whether it's making interceptions or defending slot receivers and tight ends down the middle of the field, blowing up a play in the backfield or chasing a running back from sideline to sideline, Walker has proven he can do it all.
There's no question that both of these guys can play, and both have very bright futures. For Wildcat fans, it's an exciting time to root for a team with so many promising youngsters-- Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Garrett Dickerson, Igwebuike and Walker. Who are you more excited about: the ballhawking safety or the hard-hitting linebacker?