It's hard to ask for much better than 2012's group, with David Nwabuisi locking down intermediate targets on the weak side, Chi Chi Ariguzo flying off the edge on the strong side and Damien Proby coming up with damn near every stop in run defense. While Nwabuisi's gone and Ariguzo switches positions, it's fair to expect another huge season for the unit, and for a system that tends to favor speed and smarts over brute strength, this year's linebacking corps certainly fits the bill.
Much of my confidence stems from the rock-steady Proby, whose consistency--a main prerequisite for a middle linebacker--makes him the natural leader of this defense. Proby's physical game is there, emerging as a great form tackler from the get-go last season. He posted double-digit tackles six times, especially impressive considering it was his first full-time starting job. Proby combined for a ridiculous 30 stops against Indiana and Penn State, and though he sat out spring ball, it was far from time off. After watching him bark advice from the sideline, it's not hard to see Proby matching or even exceeding Nwabuisi's efforts as a senior leader.
Proby's consistency makes Ariguzo's position switch a bit easier to handle. Ariguzo, the team's best blitzer and most balanced defensive playmaker, shifts his aggressive edge game to the weak side, where he'll be asked to do more in pass coverage and exploit his open-field speed. Putting Ariguzo on the weak side is obviously not a shot in the dark though; his five pass deflections and two picks were just as valuable as his three sacks. He'll still be available to blitz, but adds an element of athleticism to a pass coverage unit that could still use a bit more confidence. I'm far from worried about the transition to weak side. If anything, Northwestern gets more out of Ariguzo by lining him up against tight ends and running backs. At 6-3, he has the size (and definitely the agility) to keep up.
Collin Ellis is intriguing on the strong side. Fitzgerald praised his focus Tuesday, while Ariguzo likes his aggression. Ellis won't fill stat sheets the way Ariguzo did last year, but his hustle is admirable, and his propensity for hard hits should only increase after an impressive summer.
Perhaps the only issue here is depth--second-stringers Jaylen Prater, Joseph Jones and Drew Smith combine for 17 career tackles. All three have great upside, however. Prater's a sleek athlete who played everything from quarterback to kick returner in high school; Jones is an absolute speedster with a track runner's background; Smith filled in admirably for an injured Proby against Illinois, finishing with five tackles. Versatile senior Timmy Vernon should help the young guys as well.
Pat Fitzgerald knows what he's doing with his linebackers, and as inconsistent as the secondary's been, a solid linebacking corps is immensely helpful. While much rests on Ariguzo's ability to transition, I feel very good about the unit heading into Saturday. Northwestern will have no problem running the ball this year, but perhaps more significantly, they won't have much trouble stopping the run either.
WILL— Chi Chi Ariguzo, Drew Smith
MIKE— Damien Proby, Jaylen Prater OR Timmy Vernon
SAM— Collin Ellis, Joseph Jones