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Northwestern Wildcats’ biggest question comes with defensive leadership

The question facing the Northwestern Wildcats this offseason is replacing Anthony Walker on the field and off the field. The team is seeking a new leader.

Mike Weber, Ohio State Buckeyes, Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern Wildcats

It did not take long for Anthony Walker to begin setting a tone with the Indianapolis Colts.

As the Colts took the field for offseason workouts and rookie camp, Walker began to stand out immediately. George Bremer of the Anderson (Ind.) Herald Bulletin tweeted out this nugget from coach Chuck Pagano that Walker was already establishing himself as the leader of the group.

To Northwestern fans, this is no surprise. Walker was the heartbeat of the defense at middle linebacker for three years. The No. 1 jersey, an honor the team hands out to the player that works the hardest and embodies Northwestern’s team credos, usually goes to a walk-on or little-used player on special teams. It went to Walker last year, the team’s star player.

It is no coincidence Walker became the first Northwestern player to leave school early for the NFL Draft since 1996 (Darnell Autry) and was selected in the fifth round. If not for injuries that slowed him down his junior year and, maybe, even some weight issues (he played too heavy after hitting the weight room too hard), he could have gone higher in the fifth round.

Walker has moved on to the NFL, leaving a very big gap in the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats have a talented crop of linebackers ready to step in, but it will be nearly impossible to replace that leadership void.

For Northwestern’s most consistent unit — the unit Pat Fitzgerald has built his name on — it is the biggest question remaining. For Northwestern to have a strong defense once again, the team needs one of their young players to step into a leadership role.

Andy Coppens of Talking 10 called this the biggest question facing Northwestern this offseason:

Replacing his production will be hard enough, but replacing his leadership on a defense that has become dangerous will be even more difficult. That’s especially true with the youth movement that is afoot on the defensive side of the ball.

Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike is the most senior starter on this defense and therefore the most likely candidate to be its leader. He also is a solid player on the field, and that should help any transition that is happening.

Northwestern puts an emphasis on leadership training through its leadership council. There are certainly players within that group who can step up. But the only linebacker from last year’s leadership council that remains is Tommy Vitale. His playing time this year is fairly uncertain.

Defensive tackle Jordan Thompson is the only other defensive player who was a member of last year’s leadership council.

That does not mean there are not leaders in the locker room remaining on the roster. Indeed, the team certainly expects do-it-all safety Godwin Igwebuike to step into that role. The talented senior, who flirted with entering the NFL Draft this year, has the characteristics to be a team leader. He is the quarterback of a very talented secondary.

Undoubtedly Igwebuike will rise to that role.

Still, there is undoubtedly an extra emphasis placed on the middle linebacker position. In essence, it is the defense’s quarterback. And that position is still a bit of a mystery.

Nathan Fox and Nate Hall played outside linebacker next year. They are the only three players remaining from Northwestern’s two-deep at linebacker from last year. Redshirt senior Brett Walsh also will rise up the depth chart. Graduation has really stripped the Wildcats linebacking corps. thin.

The depth issues have pushed former running back Warren Long to linebacker and may force the team to burn redshirts on true freshman Peter McIntyre and Blake Gallagher.

There are still a lot of issues to sort out at linebacker. The team will not have that pivot in Walker to turn upon. And the success or failure of Northwestern’s season may depend on how well the linebackers react to their new roles.

Someone clearly has to step up.

Igwebuike may be asked to do this too. He will not be playing middle linebacker, per se. But like former safety Ibraheim Campbell, the team may ask him to step up in run support more than he has in the past. Igwebuike is solid in coverage and has the same knack for finding the ball that Walker did.

Northwestern’s secondary will be its strength in 2017. But the front seven is very much in question.

It is not clear whether spring football resolved any of these problems. Likely many of the team’s linebacker battles will take place in summer camp.

At least the intangible work of establishing leadership and building upon Northwestern’s legacy from the past few years will fall upon veteran leaders on the team like Igwebuike, Tyler Lancaster and senior linebacker Brett Walsh.

The workouts in the winter and summer will most likely sort this out before the team arrives in Evanston for camp in July and August.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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