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Northwestern’s Ellis, Smith vying for linebacker spot

Updated: August 6, 2013 11:00PM

Linebackers Collin Ellis and Drew Smith are staging one of the most contentious position battles Northwestern will see through its three-week training camp. The duo is vying for the strong-side position.

It’s too early for the coaches to determine who’s the front-runner, considering the Wildcats have practiced twice without pads. But after Tuesday’s practice, coach Pat Fitzgerald gave a glimpse as to how it might end.

“If it’s a definite separation, then you’ll probably see one guy more than the other,” Fitzgerald said. “But if they’re close, we’ll rotate them, keep them fresh and away we go.”

If the first two days are any indication, the latter is more likely.

Both players have been splitting first-team reps, playing with incumbent starters Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo.

By Fitzgerald’s account, Ellis and Smith are very similar. Both are athletic and like to initiate contact, another indication that rotating the two could benefit the defense.

Neither player said he’d be happy with that outcome, though.

“Being a competitor, you don’t want to settle for half,” said Smith, a redshirt sophomore. “You don’t want a piece of the pie, you want the whole thing. So I wouldn’t be satisfied, but I wouldn’t have angry feelings towards Collin. I’d just do what I have to do to make the team better.”

Ellis, a redshirt junior, came into camp with an advantage having starting some last year.

More importantly, Ellis said he’s as healthy as he’s been heading into a training camp and is coming off an offseason in which he was able to add muscle. Previously, Ellis was saddled with what Fitzgerald called soft-tissue injuries that limited his offseason workouts.

“All we can do is go out there and give them every reason for us to start and so at the end, the coaches make the decision,” Ellis said. “That’s up to them. But you’re going to see us both on the field because you’ve got to put both of us on the field at some point because we’re both going to be making plays.”

Twitter: @SethGruen

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