The competition at linebacker has been intense but the Wildcats are hoping that translates on the field this season.
The post-spring depth chart lists senior Ben Johnson as the starter entering this season. Johnson has seen nine starts in three seasons but missed the entire spring with injuries.
Johnson is a good fit at Sam linebacker. He brings quickness on the outside that quarterbacks but note of on short passes. Northwestern needs Johnson to stay healthy and stay consistent this season.
However, Johnson's starting spot isn't set in stone. Behind him stand redshirt freshmen Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo. These two have yet to see the field in a Northwestern uniform but helped hoist themselves on the depth chart with a standout spring.
Both Ellis and Ariguzo drew mention from Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz at the end of the spring. These two could join Johnson in a rotation at the Sam linebacker spot.
With the loss of Nate Williams, Northwestern needs a new middle linebacker. However, the NU coaches didn't search too hard for a replacement. Junior David Nwabuisi has played in 25 games during his first two seasons as a Wildcat, but just played a minor role. This season, he may be in-line for a starting job.
Nwabuisi is listed as the starter on the post-spring depth chart and will most likely be first on the field against Boston College. During his career, Nwabuisi was used as a linebacker on passing downs, but has added some size to his frame and will be a versatile weapon on all downs. At 240 pounds, Nwabuisi is a physically-imposing linebacker. Northwestern needs him to step up in the middle.
Listed behind Nwabuisi is sophomore Damien Proby, who saw 20 tackles and a sack last season. Proby played a big role on special teams and as a backup at linebacker. This season, he'll likely platoon at middle linebacker with Nwabuisi.
The only certainty at linebacker is senior Bryce McNaul—a returning starter on the weakside. Last season, McNaul started nine of 11 games and finished with 62 tackles and five tackles for a loss. His time was limited due to injury.
McNaul returned from injury during the spring after working his way back quicker than originally anticipated. This season, Northwestern needs McNaul to be an impact player on defense while helping the newcomers develop as well. If there's a reason for Northwestern to be confident in their two new starters, it's the fact that McNaul fit in nicely in his first full season as a starter.
Another linebacker who may see some time at Will linebacker is sophomore Tim Riley. As a freshman, Riley played a minimal role with the defense. He recorded two tackles and had a forced fumble against Minnesota. This season, Riley may have a bigger role on the defense.
A few others to watch
Northwestern's one incoming scholarship linebacker is Andrew Smith—the last commitment of the 2011 recruiting class. Smith may have some role on this year's team but is likely to see a redshirt. A few other linebackers to watch are junior Roderick Goodlow—who missed the 2010 season with a torn ACL—and Stone Pinckney.
Linebacker Grade: B-
This is a unit with a lot of potential but still remains very unproven. This group's success will be determined by how the rotations are made and how the group works together when on the field. The B- grade is a projection as we enter the season. The linebacker could reach an A and they could fall lower than a B-. There is a lot of pressure on the Wildcat linebackers this season.