Before the start of the 2013 season we looked into our (BCS) crystal (foot)ball and released 10 bold Northwestern football predictions. Needless to say they didn’t go all that well. We only got two correct: NU lost a game it was expected to win and the Cats cracked the top-5 in Big Ten pass offense. So naturally we are back at it this year. We aren’t putting a number on them this time around, but there will be more prophecies to come.
Chi-Chi Ariguzo will be a first-team All-Big Ten selection
This is on the conservative side of bold predictions. It would not be surprising if Ariguzo made first-team All-Big Ten. He is the Big Ten's leading returning tackler -- a stat that tends to matter a lot for stuff like this -- and there's little reason to think he won't meet or exceed last season's total (106). Ariguzo might be the best defensive player on a team capable of making some noise in the Big Ten West. One noted college football analyst, Phil Steele, even placed Ariguzo on his preseason Big Ten first team (Steele also put Kyle Prater on the second team and Christian Jones on the third team. So, maybe he doesn't have a great read on NU).
Rather than dwell on whether Ariguzo should be viewed as a candidate for first team honors - he should be - let's look back and discuss why he's developed into such an important piece of Northwestern's defense.
Ariguzo played safety and outside linebacker at St. Frances DeSales high school in Columbus, Ohio. He was given a three-star rating by Rivals and Scout and considered a top-50 player in Ohio. Northwestern had to beat out several high-major programs, including Stanford, Minnesota, West Virginia and Wisconsin, to land him. What attracted the Wildcats to Ariguzo, it seems, was his range and quickness. "I can cover people, and I can tackle them if I have to," Ariguzo told Rivals.com after he became Northwestern's sixth commitment in the class of 2010. "They (coaches) like the way I play in space."
Ariguzo redshirted his freshman year but earned some playing time the next season, in 2011, backing up Bryce McNaul at weakside, or WILL, linebacker and compiling 18 tackles over 11 games. Ariguzo missed the season finale against Michigan State and the Meineke Car Care bowl against Texas A&M because of a shoulder injury. He was moved to strongside, or SAM, linebacker as a sophomore and started every game. This is when Ariguzo's potential came into clear view. He tied the Big Ten lead with four fumbles, ranked second on the team in tackles for loss (10) and third in total tackles and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
He also made a number of big plays, including a fumble return for a touchdown in the season-opener at Syracuse and an interception in the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State. Watching Ariguzo, you got the sense that he knew exactly the right place to position himself on seemingly every play - that he wasn't just lucking into turnovers or focusing solely on popping the ball loose and hunting picks while disregarding other responsibilities. Then came last season, in which Ariguzo showed further improvement. Lining up at WILL again, Ariguzo racked up 106 tackles, second only to Damien Proby's 111, and tied Ibraheim Campbell for the team lead with four interceptions. The media voted him an All-Big Ten honoree.
The most memorable play Ariguzo made last season - as was the case the season before - came against Syracuse. With NU up 27-7 and the Orange driving late in the second quarter, Ariguzo dove to snag Drew Allen's pass, giving NU good field position and just enough time to score another touchdown before halftime. The Syracuse game was one of the few bright spots in Northwestern's 2013 season; after beating up on non-major conference foes Western Michigan and Maine in consecutive weeks, the Wildcats lost seven straight conference games and failed to qualify for the postseason. But Ariguzo kept playing well, which is why he enters this season with so much promise.
Before we move on to 2014, I'd like to highlight one other play from last season that sticks out. Everyone remembers Ron Kellogg III's game-winning Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp. But if you watch the replay (totally understand if you'd rather not relive that), you'll see Ariguzo collapse right after Westerkamp catches the pass and plants his feet in the end zone. You can understand why Ariguzo was devastated: he had seven tackles and an interception in that game and, well, it sucks to lose a game the way he and his teammates did. Ariguzo was reacting to a horrific stroke of bad luck, but the way he fell to the ground, overcome with grief, and lay there summed up Northwestern's season.
Ariguzo played one of his best games in the finale against Illinois, matching his career-high of 14 tackles. This season, he'll be tasked with anchoring a linebacking corps that could be better than it was in 2013 despite losing Proby. Ariguzo is projected to start at WILL alongside Collin Ellis (MIKE) and Drew Smith (SAM). If he stays healthy, Ariguzo should be just as good, if not better, than he was a year ago. That'll put him in the conversation for first-team Big Tean honors, no doubt. From his pass coverage to his turnover creation to his sideline-to-sideline range to his ability to make plays in the backfield, Ariguzo is one of the most complete linebackers you'll see in this league.