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Northwestern Football Most Important Players — No. 2: Anthony Walker

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Jung (Rank: 2): Last season, Anthony Walker was the heart and soul of Northwestern's defense. Actually, scratch that, he was also the brain, muscle and various other bodily metaphors of Northwestern's defense. You don't need me to tell you Northwestern's All-American linebacker was a vital part of the team in 2015. He was uniformly spectacular, barring two woeful performances against Michigan and Tennessee (neither of which were entirely his fault) Anthony Walker will be important in 2016 because he's probably the team's best overall player.

Walker's ability to take command of the defense while also showing elite tackling ability and speed will once again be the key to Northwestern's defensive schemes. While Northwestern's secondary received more attention last year, Northwestern's run defense was equally impressive. In addition to playing well by traditional statistics and the "eye test", the run defense ranked 16th in S&P and shut down star backs like Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Wisconsin's Corey Clement. Without Walker's dominance, this would be have been nearly impossible. There are aspects of his game he can improve, but given his current career trajectory and athletic skill, it's hard to imagine Walker not playing a huge role in next year's team.

Ben Goren (Rank: NR): Alright, first of all I straight forgot to go back in and add Anthony Walker in my Top 10, but he'd probably have come in somewhere between five and seven. I keep going back and forth on what "most important" meant, and when I was trying to put Walker into this matrix, my thought process was more or less that this dude is going to be a stud and there's no way there's going to be any kind of negative variance off of that level. He's an All-American with first round talent, and because of that, he becomes less important than the players around him.

Anthony Walker needs to get better taking on blockers and his angles can be wonky at times sure, but the bottom line is that he's a freaking baller. But in order for the defense to be great again, the development of his linebacker partners and the performance of the new defensive linemen is going to have a bigger effect than Anthony Walker's greatness. I'm not sure if that makes any sense at all, but that's what was going through my head when I ranked him low (or meant to).

TJ: I also had trouble defining most important, so I went back to the classic "how much could this player affect the team as opposed to a replacement-level player" question. I understand your point about how Walker's position may preclude a top five spot in terms of importance, but I think his immense positive value versus the average college football linebacker outweighs the potential value/importance of Nate Hall or Cam Queiro. While a similar breakout in another defensive position is possible and badly needed, I preferred to rank what Northwestern has at the moment, rather than attempting to project the future.

As for Walker's flaws, there are certainly a few rough edges that need to be ironed out. As you mentioned, his technique isn't flawless, but I think his "football IQ" and ability to read defenses on the fly more than makes up for it. His pass coverage could use a little work, but considering he is the player who usually cleans up for all defensive mistakes, I excuse him for that as well.

As a hypothetical, if Walker were ruled out for the first game (knocking on wood furiously), I think the point spread would change by 2-3 points. For any non-quarterback, that's about the highest swing you can achieve. For all intents and purposes, Walker should be the "superstar" of this team next year, and that generally requires a hefty amount of importance from game to game. And we should also enjoy him while we can, because it is very possible that Walker leaves early to enter the NFL Draft if he plays well next season.

BG: You're right about that, without a doubt. The difference between Walker and Cam Quiero/Jaylen Prater/whoever would be the new mike linebacker is huge. I don't want this to come off as in any way saying that Anthony Walker isn't an awesome player. I'm just concerned about the guys who helped him become such an awesome player last year leaving and untested guys around him. NU needs Anthony Walker on the field to be a good defense next year. It's just that in order to be a great unit, they're going to need other guys to step up.