NU coach Pat Fitzgerald likes his flexibility at linebacker
BY SETH GRUEN For Sun-Times Media August 9, 2012 11:04PM
Updated: September 11, 2012 1:41PM
When a football coach says a preseason depth chart means nothing, it’s often his way of avoiding controversy among players.
But when the topic is Northwestern’s linebackers, coach Pat Fitzgerald is telling the truth.
Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis are all in the mix to start at any of the three linebacker positions. Ellis was the odd man out during practice Thursday and played with the second team, but Fitzgerald said that next week he’ll rotate all four players.
“Each position should be the same picture in your mind,” Proby said. “You might look at it from a different angle, but it’s the same picture — the same offense, the same things you’re going against. Once you know it well enough, and that’s something that I’m happy I have right now, it all looks the same.”
For a team that likes to rotate as many positions as possible, it gives Fitzgerald the flexibility to scheme his defenses in different ways.
The Wildcats will practice in full pads for the first time Friday. So the first four days of training camp haven’t tested the linebackers too much at the line of scrimmage.
But the quartet has flashed an athleticism that will make his decision on whom to start a tough one.
“I feel like we’ve got four that can start and play every position,” Fitzgerald said. “So that kind of makes you feel like you’ve got eight. We’ve got to stay healthy, but I like the group. I think their retention has been great; their eyes have been good in their key reads.”
Having practiced with limited contact and against the Wildcats’ spread offense, the linebackers have worked a lot on pass coverage by default.
Proby played middle linebacker, which he prefers, during a team scrimmage and had several pass deflections six or seven yards from the line of scrimmage.
Playing against the spread allowed Nwabuisi to line up against wide receivers on nearly every one of his reps. Though the Wildcats won’t see a spread offense during many of their games this season, practicing against their own team drills the linebackers in helping the defensive backs in pass coverage, which was lacking at times last season.
“We were definitely trying to work on getting our depth, helping out DBs, making sure we’re carrying receivers for long enough,” Nwabuisi said.
“That’s definitely good to work on. When you play a spread team like that, you definitely need to get back in pass coverage and break forward.”