Losing three starters at once is tough enough for any football team, but losing three at the same position, especially when one is a surefire NFL Draft pick, isn’t something most coaches have to deal with.
For Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, that’s the stark reality of the 2017 football season and life in the post-Anthony Walker era.
Northwestern entered spring practice this season without three starters at linebacker from 2016 with Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones having graduated and Walker declaring for the draft. Veteran Nate Hall was limited in practice as well, leaving Northwestern with roughly five healthy linebackers. The best word to describe those five — Warren Long, Paddy Fisher, Nathan Fox, Brett Walsh and Jango Glackin — is “untested.” Northwestern has had to infuse youth into the defense, and do so quickly.
“The freshmen are going to be in the depth right away, just because of the nature of the couple of guys having to medical and Anthony graduating,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But we were here back a couple years ago when Anthony had to play or when Chi Chi Ariguzo had to play or Timmy McGarigle had to play or Nick Roach, so we’ve been down this road before, but I like the group.”’
This is the general mood of optimism surrounding the linebacker position, and for good reason. Right now, Nate Hall and Brett Walsh will probably start, and while they’ve only gotten short looks over the past couple of years, both have impressed. Hall had a torrid finish to the 2015 season, and was solid again in 2016. He’s the sole veteran of the group.
Walsh came in for spurts last season, and even started when Jaylen Prater got hurt. He averaged over five tackles a game over the final stretch of the season, so he’s already proven that he has what it takes to play linebacker in the Big Ten.
“Brett’s probably the most experienced inside linebacker, he knows his position,” Fox said. “He knows all the calls, which are a ton, he helps me out, he helps everyone out on the field just by being there.”
That leaves the three young guys, sophomore Fox, redshirt freshman Fisher and redshirt freshman Glackin, as the x-factors for Northwestern’s success at linebacker.
“Paddy and Jango, they’re stepping up,” Fox said. “I mean Paddy and I are going one on one for the starting spot, so he’s not just some freshman who’s there, he’s legitimate, he’s a great athlete. I just have a year ahead of him, some extra training, so I know the defense a little crisper. But he’s learning, he sees his mistakes and he’s fixing them, that’s the big thing.”
Both Fisher and Fox looked impressive in spring practice on Saturday, as Fisher had some big hits and Fox was solid in both the run game and coverage. Most importantly, the young guys are going out of their way to learn as much as they can from the veterans. Some are beginning to take notice, including the ones they’re playing against.
“They’re getting a ton of reps, they’re flying around, not afraid to make mistakes, so it’s cool to see that,” Clayton Thorson said. “They really want to learn; I’ve had a few of those guys come ask me, ‘what happened on this play, why’d you do this, why’d you do that, did you see something I didn’t?’ so I think they’re starting to get it and that’s pretty cool to see.”
Of course, Northwestern’s defense is still a work in progress, and will be probably all the way up until the opener on September 2nd, but the linebackers appear to be in a good place right now, or at least working towards it.
Still, there’s no foundation yet. Hall and Walsh both have experience, but it’s not nearly what Walker had coming into last season. Everybody at the position has a chance to start, and the young guys realize that more than anyone. The linebackers are currently, on paper, the weak link of the defense, and they’re going to have to prepare accordingly.
“We still have a lot to learn, a lot to improve on, but Warren’s doing great, Brett’s doing great at Will, our freshmen are really stepping up, just learning the defense,” Fox said. “It’s hard going from scout team last year to actually playing this year for them. We have a lot of big shoes to fill with Anthony gone, Joe Jones, Jaylen Prater, but we still have four months to train and I think it’s going to be real crucial, but I think we’re all determined and we all know the responsibility that lies on the linebackers in this room.”
There are big depth problems right now, but Fitzgerald also said that while they only have six linebackers, they’ll bring in three scholarship freshmen and then around three to four walk-ons. By game week, the bodies will be available on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside of the more traditional linebackers of Fisher, Fox and Walsh, there’s also converted running back Warren Long, who’s been impressing so far in his short time at the position.
“Everybody is just making reservations for starting roles right now, those will get defined as we get closer to the opener,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think [Long’s] going to do fine, I think he’s learning everyday, I think that he’s embraced the role and I think, as you saw today, he has some instincts and can fly around.”
Long is truly the wildcard in the linebacking corps. Despite only playing the position for about three weeks, he impressed everyone on Saturday with some big hits during the scrimmage. Long is clearly athletic enough to play linebacker at the Big Ten level, so once he gets deep into the playbook and gets the defense down, he may be a force to be reckoned with.
“Coming from running back to defense is just a whole new game, it’s like me trying to play running back, I’d probably fumble every time,” Fox said. “But Warren comes downhill, he plays crazy, once he gets the defense completely down, which he’s doing, once he gets a feel for playing linebacker for longer than three weeks, I think he’s going to be good.”
It’s strange that the mood around the linebackers would be so positive following the major losses, but this lack of depth in the spring may actually pay dividends in the fall. Unlike prior years, where starters were pretty much set in stone, everyone is playing right now, and the younger guys are pushing into the starting lineup and getting reps. Suddenly, there are five or six guys capable of running the defense. There will be ample chances to succeed.
Who knows, there might even be a true freshman or two in the mix come September. The veterans are gone, which means that 2017 is the year that the Northwestern linebacker youth movement takes over, and for right now, the future looks bright.