After position swap, Damien Proby produces sizzling sophomore season at middle linebacker

Josh Walfish

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When media members asked to speak with Damien Proby after practice, the sophomore knew something was up.

The middle linebacker had yet to start a game leading up to Northwestern’s match against Penn State, so the media’s request for an interview took him by surprise.

“When you come to practice, you prepare to be a starter every time,” the middle linebacker said. “I came to practice and it was like ‘oh Proby you’re with the ones.’ After that I had a crash with all the media, and I was like they knew I was playing before I did.”

Proby got his first career start in the Wildcats’ Oct. 22 loss to the Nittany Lions and finished with six tackles, which tied him for the team-high. He put up an even better performance the next week against Indiana, when he compiled a career-high 14 tackles, 10 of which came unassisted. He finished the regular season ranked sixth on the team with 53 tackles, 40 of which have come since he was named a starter.

After taking a redshirt season in 2009, the North Las Vegas, Nev., native made an impression on Pat Fitzgerald in the spring of 2010. The coach told former Wildcats linebacker Nick Roach to watch Proby during a scrimmage because Proby reminded Fitzgerald of the current Bears linebacker.

“It starts with his stance,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of similarities to the way they approach pre snap. Both play really well with their feet apart and are able to diagnose (the play) and are physical.”

Proby does not know when he started using his current stance because he has played linebacker since the age of seven. He said he is honored by the comparison, but that he has a long way to go before he is able to get to Roach’s level.

“I would love to get to (Roach’s) spot, but I still need to focus on the here and now,” Proby said. “That greatness that he is, I would love to get there, but I know I’m not there yet. I’m happy for the comparisons, but I realize where I am now.”

The sophomore said he does not have a specific player he tries to imitate; rather, he tries to learn from the linebackers he watches on television. Anytime Proby watches a football game, he focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of each linebacker. He said the process helps him learn from their mistakes and figure out what he needs to work on in practice.

As the quarterback of the defense, the middle linebacker needs to be a vocal leader on the field. The need to speak more has been drilled into Proby’s head ever since he stepped on campus as a true freshman. He said he needs to increase his verbal presence if he wants to lead the defense in the future.

“I want to improve on being more of a vocal leader on this team,” Proby said. “That is something I want to improve on so I can lead this defense where we need to be both for this game and in the future.”

For now, Proby has benefited from the leadership of linebacker David Nwabuisi. The junior has taken Proby under his wing this season. Nwabuisi hosted Proby on his official visit to NU, which Proby told the Chicago Sun-Times helped solidify his decision to become a Wildcat. The visit came after Fall Quarter ended in 2008, and Proby described it as a very relaxing visit since there was not a whole lot to do.

Nwabuisi’s tutelage has focused mostly on the mental aspects of the game. He said that once Proby got the basics down, he started to move on to more advanced reads and worked on making the sophomore into a better on-field leader. Nwabuisi said that he has seen a lot of improvement in his younger peer in just a few short months.

“This year, he finally got all the basics down,” Nwabuisi said. “I started adding onto his knowledge and having him now when he watches film, try to get some keys and some little cheats that I get from how people are aligned. I’ve tried to make him start looking out for that, start making him make the calls when we watched the film. Just help him take his game to another level.”

Proby played outside linebacker at Cheyenne High School in the suburbs of Las Vegas. However, Fitzgerald was so impressed with his instincts that he had Proby play middle linebacker so he could be in the box more often. Proby said that his general knowledge of the NU defensive playbook helped smooth his transition.

“As a linebacker you need to know all three (linebacker positions) in a worst-case scenario,” Proby said. “If you know the playbook like you’re supposed to know it, you should just be able to pick up and put down.”

Nwabuisi made the opposite transition from middle linebacker to outside linebacker this season. After starting the first six games of the season in the middle, the junior was moved to the weak side for the final five games of the season. Nwabuisi agreed that the transition was easy since he had a good understanding of the playbook and of the concepts the defense was trying to run.

After six consecutive starts at middle linebacker, Proby has remained humble. He acknowledged that injuries helped him move into the starting role, and said that he is glad that he has been able to stay in the starting lineup.

“I’m happy for the opportunity,” Proby said. “I’m happy I’m there now and able to maintain that spot.”

This article is the fifth in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as our entire football coverage team, consisting of Colin Becht, Robbie Levin, Jonah Rosenblum and Josh Walfish, debate who the Wildcats’ 2011 MVP ought to be.