The Wildcats take an inevitable hit at the second level with the graduation of senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. A 2012 co-captain and an aggressive run defender, Nwabuisi leaves a 240-pound hole that the Cats will scramble to fill before Opening Day.
Though nobody's emerged as a clear-cut favorite to win the weak side job, it's tough to ignore junior Collin Ellis. After notching 10 starts last season, Ellis stands to be the addition that could turn Northwestern's linebacking corp from good to great.
With experience on the strong side, Ellis has the skill and athleticism to make the switch. Continually referred to as one of the Wildcats' hardest hitters, he stepped up in spot fill-ins last year, notching a sack against Indiana and three tackles at Michigan.
His game comes from an athlete's mentality. He broached 1,000 yards rushing as a junior and senior in high school, giving him the instincts of an ideal run stuffer. And with experience in track and field – like many Fitzgerald recruits – Ellis can keep pace with tight ends in pass coverage. In defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz's intricate system, a player of Ellis' versatility is extremely useful.
He will be vying for the starting with sophomore Drew Smith. After making starts in consecutive seasons, experience could favor Ellis, who would be joining a junior and senior in the linebacker rotation. After partially unseating Ben Johnson back in 2011, Ellis' relentless work ethic forces conversation.
Clocking an unofficial 4.55 40-yard dash, Ellis outruns Nwabuisi, who recorded a 4.71 at Northwestern's pro day March 5. And Ellis' bulky 225-pound frame outmuscles Ariguzo, who weighs in at 220. An Academic All-Big Ten honoree, he embodies exactly what Pat Fitzgerald and Co. are all about: smart, hustle football.
Despite secondary struggles last year, the Cats dominated against the run. Ranking 21st in the nation in total run defense and allowing a measly 3.77 yards per carry, Northwestern's aggression on the edge and patience in the middle paced the D. Adding a player of Ellis' intellect to the fold would be the logical next step.
Ellis' most prominent concern for this spring will be warding off the injury bug. The Louisiana product was in a similar position back in 2011, competing for a starting position with Johnson and Ariguzo before sustaining a hand injury in preseason camp. After being shelved from games against Michigan State and Illinois last year, Ellis will have to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season.
Still, there's something undeniably exciting about a traveled player looking to prove himself. If his track record is any indication, Ellis will be flying from sideline to sideline this spring and summer in hopes of entrenching himself in Northwestern's depth chart.
With Fitzgerald currently quiet about announcing starters, our guess is as good as yours for just how many reps Ellis will see in 2013. But with the skill set and dedication already in place, you have to like his chances. Even if Ellis stays on the strong side and sees time as a backup, hustle has a way of working itself into the spotlight.