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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Linebackers Preview

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. Today, we continue our look at Northwestern's star-studded defense with the linebackers.

Personnel

Returning Starters: Anthony Walker (RS Jr.), Jaylen Prater (RS Sr.), Nate Hall (RS So.)

Other returning contributors: Joseph Jones (RS Sr.), Brett Walsh (RS Jr.), Cameron Queiro (RS So.), Tommy Vitale (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: Nathan Fox, Simba Short

Incoming freshmen: Paddy Fisher, Jango Glackin

Overview

This position has been a source of stability for Northwestern, primarily because of Anthony Walker. To summarize his sophomore season, Walker was named an All-American honoree by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, a consensus First Team All-Big Ten, finished second in the nation with 19.5 tackles for a loss and lead the Wildcats in tackles (113) by more than 40.

Aside from the secondary, the linebacker corps are one of Northwestern's strongest assets. Before getting injured, Jaylen Prater was on pace to be top three on the team in tackles, and Nate Hall was fifth in tackles while only making three starts in place of Prater. The Wildcats will lose Drew Smith to graduation, who was a consistent presence alongside Walker and Hall/Prater all season long.

If these linebackers have one flaw, it might be in pass coverage. In the Outback Bowl, Tennessee exposed the middle of the field and the flat. Prater and Hall seem to be athletic enough to defend in the open field, but their technique was suspect at times last season. Addressing this flaw with added experience could further secure this defense among the nation's elite next season.

Position Battles

Second-string MLB

The starter positions seem to be locked up. Anthony Walker is undoubtedly the middle linebacker, and Prater should resume his role on the outside. Hall filled Prater's void when he was hurt, and he should slide to the other outside position, perhaps taking more of a coverage role. The real battle should be for backup between Cameron Queiro and Nathan Fox. We haven't seen much for Queiro yet in terms of defensive impact, despite seeing the field in every game last season. Fox, on the other hand, is an exciting player who could earn a shot at playing time behind Walker. In that situation, expect to see Queiro move to the outside in a reserve role.

Depth

Thanks to effective recruiting the past two classes, linebacker has surprisingly emerged as one of Northwestern's deeper positions. Its depth is the reason that highly touted commits such as Nathan Fox didn't see the field. The same redshirt situation will likely unfold for Jango Glackin, who received an offer from the linebacker savvy Wisconsin, and interest from Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. However, injuries happen, and Hall wasn't quite ready for the starting role last season. If Prater and Tommy Vitale (who played a variety of roles for Northwestern last season as a true freshman before a season-ending injury) both go down again, Northwestern's depth may be challenged.

Burning Question

Will Anthony Walker slow down?

Last season seemed too good to be true for Walker. He was on the field for nearly every play and his production never really plateaued. He is one of the best linebackers in the country and should earn spots on both the Nagurski and Bednarik award watch lists. But the answer is that Walker won't slow down. He's the anchor to Northwestern's elite defense and with Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose gone, Walker and cornerback Matt Harris will be the Wildcats' most experienced starters on defense. The special thing about Walker is that he has the motor to play three downs, and the ability to drop back in coverage against Big Ten tight ends or slice between linemen to meet the running back in the backfield. With the NFL on his mind, there is no way Walker slows down this year. NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports have him as the second-best inside linebacker in his class, and look for Walker to prove that he could be number one.

Breakout player to watch

Nathan Fox

After redshirting his freshman season along with most of the 2015 class, Fox could be ready to make an impact. In fact, according to our Henry Bushnell, he might have been ready to play last year if it weren't for a high school injury:

Nathan Fox was another true freshman who looked good [in the Kenosha scrimmage]. On one play, Fox, playing middle linebacker, showed great range and laid a big hit on [Jelani] Roberts on a bubble screen, stopping him after a minimal gain. Fox was a big time recruit who had offers from Oregon and Mississippi State. However, due to a high school injury, he was limited in his workouts prior to his arrival at Northwestern. Fox, therefore, has been working himself into playing shape as camp progresses, but based on his performance Saturday, appears to be where he needs to be. It's still unclear whether or not he will redshirt though.

After getting a chance to learn under Walker, he could be ready to contribute this year. Watching his high school film, Fox has great size for a linebacker, reacts quickly to the run and pass, plays with great leverage, and has the athleticism and blitz quickness to stay on the field in passing situations. Fox won't overtake Walker at inside linebacker, but he should certainly challenge Queiro for the backup role and receive some snaps.

Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String
WILL Jaylen Prater Tommy Vitale
MIKE Anthony Walker Cameron Queiro / Nathan Fox
SAM Nate Hall Joseph Jones