Two consecutive seasons in a reserve role prepared Nwabuisi for a big jump in playing time last season. He took over the starting middle linebacker spot but also spent time on the outside. Nwabuisi has good size and speed for his position and should improve on his 84 tackles from last season.
Given NU's inexperienced secondary, the linebackers might be forced to drop into pass coverage more often than in previous seasons. Nwabuisi, at 6-1, 240 pounds, can fly around the ball and make plays in space on tight ends and receivers. His versatility allowed defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to move him around last season, though it's likely he will spend most of his time outside.
While NU has talent in all three units on defense, experience is lacking, which is why Nwabuisi is so important. He provides a calming, veteran influence to reign in the younger, inexperienced players. It's up to Nwabuisi to set the tone in training camp and lead the linebacking corps, predicted by many to be the Wildcats' strongest defensive position group, to a strong season.
Damien Proby (junior)
One of the main reasons people are calling this year's linebacking corps the best of Fitzgerald's tenure is the speed it boasts, from Nwabuisi, to Colin Ellis to Drew Smith. Proby exhibits that trait better than perhaps any other Linebacker on the roster, and after seven starts last season, his speed will loom large in NU's defensive success in 2012.
After earning the starting middle linebacker spot midway through last season, Proby distinguished himself as a game-changing playmaker, especially in NU's upset win over Nebraska, when he notched nine tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack. He finished the season on a strong note, with seven tackles, 0.5 TFL and a forced fumble in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
This season, Proby will anchor the middle of the defense from week one on, and his experience from last season should translate to better, more consistent production. He's aggressive in bringing down ball carriers and a sound tackler, but he also excels dropping in coverage and making plays in space.
Collin Ellis (Sophomore)
A hand injury suffered in preseason camp prevented Ellis from winning a starting spot in last season's opener, but it only took three games before he supplanted Ben Johnson at outside linebacker. Making his first start at Illinois, Ellis recorded three tackles and a sack. He secured the starting spot with a performance that was aggressive as much as it was surprising.
Ellis, a true freshman, proved he was an indispensible piece on NU's defense last season, an active defender with loads of potential. Relentless in pursuit and a deceptively-quick pass rusher, he will improve in his second year with a better understanding of Hankwitz's system.
Proby and Nwabuisi provide experience and maturity in the linebacking corps, but Ellis, despite just one year of playing time, is arguably the unit's most talented player. He's only scratched the surface of his all-conference potential, and his growth and maturation will be interesting to observe over the next three seasons.
Chi-Chi Ariguzo (Sophomore)
It's unlikely Ariguzo wins a starting job out of preseason camp, but he'll play a key reserve role at outside linebacker. He provides quality depth behind Proby, Nwabuisi and Ellis, and will fight and compete hard for playing time. He will play a significant number of snaps irrespective of whether he earns any starts.
His productive 2011 campaign was marred somewhat by a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the season finale against Michigan State as well as the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Now fully recovered, Ariguzo will return to the same speedy, aggressive linebacker he was for most of last season.
Drew Smith (RS Freshman)
Having young, fast, talented linebackers on your roster bodes well for the future. In Smith's case, there's the possibility for immediate impact. He shined in practice throughout his redshirt year and could be used as a pass-rushing specialist this season. Although he lacks size, Smith has enough speed and power to shed defenders and make plays in space.
Will Studlien (Junior)
Limited by injuries for much of last season, Studlien is a tremendous worker and provides much-needed depth. He appeared in just one game last season, but should see the field more often in the fall, even if he's confined mostly to special teams.
Doug Diedrick (RS Freshman)
Though he may not contribute on defense this season, Diedrick was a consistent contributor on special teams during practice last season. One thing's for sure, Diedrick, who played his 14-game season in high school with a torn ACL, plays the game with a warrior's mentality.
Timmy Vernon (Junior)
A contributor on special teams last season, Vernon appeared in nine games, his season highlighted by a 10-yd kickoff return against Michigan State. His special teams role will expand this season, and he may get a few snaps on defense as well.
Roderick Goodlow (Senior)
Nagging injuries forced Goodlow to miss all but two games last season. He's an explosive player with good size and speed, but it's uncertain where he fits into the linebacker depth chart this season. If Goodlow stays healthy, he can be a nice depth piece for a linebacking corps short on experience, but he's had trouble staying healthy since playing seven games as a true freshman in 2009. At worst, he will contribute on special teams and play a few snaps at outside linebacker.
Ifeadi Odenigbo—If you haven't already heard, this guy's pretty good. Odenigbo, a four-star OLB from Centerville (OH), is one of the top recruiting coups of Fitzgerald's tenure. While he needs time to add size and strength, Odenigbo is a big-impact player with huge upside.
Michael Odom (walk-on)—A Two-way player at Benet Academy (IL), Odom likely will redshirt this season while he improves in the weight room and learns the defense.
Jaylen Prater—While he's best known for his prowess on the football field, Prater was a regional finalist in the 100 M dash for Wellston (OH). He's a nice addition and just the latest evidence of Fitzgerald's affinity for speed in his linebacking corps.
Eric Wilson—Highly recruited out of Lee M. Thurston high school (MI), he led his team to four consecutive conference championships and a district championship in 2010. He played wide receiver and safety throughout his high school career, but is making the switch to linebacker for the Wildcats.
Grade: A -
NU's pass defense last season was inarguably substandard, costing the Wildcats late in games in pivotal moments, and while the linebacking corps was often cast alongside the secondary in post-game tirades, the criticism was unfounded, or at least partially unwarranted. The group, led by Ellis, Proby, Nwabuisi and Ariguzo, quietly played inspired, consistent football for much of last season.
Another year of experience will only further their development and cohesion, affecting their progression in a positive and entirely favorable way. There's a nice mix of veterans—Nwabuisi, Proby, Goodlow—and young, emerging talents such as Ellis, Ariguzo and Smith. More importantly, the unit hardly lacks speed, and with the advent of spread offenses in the Big Ten, a quick, active linebacking corps is the sort of antidote that could stymie the onrush of high-tempo, pass-oriented play calling.
It's no stretch to call the linebackers NU's best defensive position group in 2012 and perhaps the best overall unit, wide receiver standing as the one exception. As the pass defense works to improve on last season's debacle, growing pains are expected, so the linebackers will be counted upon to atone for their anticipated struggles with another strong season.