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Northwestern football position preview: Linebackers

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All-American Anthony Walker leads the way for one of Northwestern's best position groups

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

We continue the series with the linebackers. This group already has a star in Anthony Walker, but who will fill in around the All-American?

Overview

Returning Starters (career starts): Anthony Walker (Jr.) (19), Nate Hall (R-So.) (3), Jaylen Prater (R-Sr.) (9)

Key Losses: Drew Smith

Other Returners: Joseph Jones (Sr.), Cameron Queiro (R-So.), Brett Walsh (Jr.), Tommy Vitale (So.), Simba Short (R-Fr.), Tom Hruby (Sr.), Nathan Fox (R-Fr.), Josh Roberts (Jr.)

Incoming Freshman: Paddy Fisher, Cody Link, Jango Glackin

Linebacker is one of the best units on this entire team, and could arguably be the best unit, in fact. The entire group gets a pretty big boost from having All-American Anthony Walker prowling the field, but the guys around him are solid as well. The loss of Drew Smith and his 19 career starts hurts a bit, but luckily Northwestern already groomed his replacement, Nate Hall, late last year. Hall came was fantastic during the final few games of the season and even finished fifth on the team in tackles despite only starting three games. Look for an even bigger year from Hall in 2016. Then there's the man that Hall had to replace last year, Jaylen Prater, who was well on his way to a solid season before suffering a season ending injury. He'll be healthy once again and will look to have a successful senior campaign if he can beat out Joe Jones for the starting spot. Prater is solid against the run while Jones has the advantage against the pass and played a lot on third downs last year. Outside of the starters, guys like Prater/Jones and Cameron Queiro should be able to contribute in backup roles and one of redshirt freshman, either Simba Short or Nathan Fox, should be able to produce as well.

Key Player

Anthony Walker

Like there was anyone else this could be. Walker had an unreal 2015, piling up 122 tackles, 20.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 1 INT and 1 TD. He did literally everything for this defense, and was probably the best player on the team. He had 19 tackles in one game (and 14 in one half)! We've reached the point where people outside of Northwestern are taking notice of Walker, and there's even a decent shot that he could be a first round draft pick. Northwestern will need another great season out of its star linebacker to help keep the defense together. Losses on the defensive line will mean that Walker will have to be even more active all over the field. He's the best defender on this team, and he'll have to show it once again.

Big Question

Can Nate Hall make the next step?

Before Hall took over for Prater against Penn State — and wound up making a game-saving tackle — he only had 14 tackles on the year. In the last five games, including the bowl game, he had 42 tackles. That's an average of 8.4 tackles per game. For comparison, Walker averaged roughly 9.4 tackles per game last year, so Hall was playing at a fantastic level down the stretch. Now he just needs to do for an entire season. We saw last year that Hall has the talent and the awareness to be a great linebacker, now he just needs to make 2016 his breakout season.

Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
SAM Jaylen Prater Joseph Jones Josh Roberts/Simba Short
MIKE Anthony Walker Cameron Queiro Nathan Fox
WILL Nate Hall Brett Walsh Tommy Vitale

This is one of the more set starting groups on the entire team. Come week one, Walker, Hall and either Prater or Jones should be the starters. The backups will be Joseph Jones (or Prater), Cameron Queiro and one of the younger linebackers who impresses in practice. Right now that might be one of the redshirt freshman or Tommy Vitale if he's healthy. Also don't count out one of the freshman making an impact, maybe Jango Glackin? At the very least, NU should keep him somewhere on the depth chart just to type his awesome name out. At the moment, seniority puts the oft-injured Brett Walsh as the backup, but look for a younger player to step up. Whatever the case, the linebackers are pretty much set at the top, with room to impress and move up the depth chart to second string for the backups.