Football: Sophomore linebacker proving to be big playmaker on defense

Sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo leads Northwestern in tackles this season with 39 tackles. He is a four-time NU defensive big playmaker of the week.

Daily file photo by Rafi Letzter

Sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo leads Northwestern in tackles this season with 39 tackles. He is a four-time NU defensive big playmaker of the week.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

For the last two seasons, a safety has led Northwestern in tackles. This season, the Wildcats don’t need to rely on their safeties to make the plays because it rarely gets to them.

The starting linebackers are the three leading tacklers on this team, and leading the pack is sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo.

The linebacker has come into his own this season, grabbing a starting spot at outside linebacker. His 39 tackles are a career high after picking up only 32 in his redshirt-freshman campaign last season. Ariguzo said he has not gained more confidence since gaining the starting job, but it has motivated him to work harder to keep that spot as the season progresses.

“Nobody’s job is still solidified,” Ariguzo said. “If you mess up, you’re going to mess up, and they’re going to take you out and put someone in who can make the play. It’s more just pushing me harder just to keep working hard.”

On Sept. 10, Ariguzo was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after his monstrous 10 tackles including three for a loss in NU’s win over Vanderbilt. He became the first NU player in two years to earn the honor, and his three tackles for loss were the most by a Cats’ defender since Quentin Davie accomplished the feat against Rice in 2010.

Ariguzo has found a way to be at the right place at the right time this season with an interception and two fumble recoveries. The sophomore gave the credit to his teammates, who he said have done a good job at making impactful plays. He said it is just a coincidence he has been able to make the plays, but senior Quentin Williams thinks otherwise.

“Chi Chi has awesome instincts,” the defensive lineman said. “He’s just a very instinctual football player, and it is fun to watch him.”

Through five weeks of the season, Ariguzo has been named the team’s defensive big playmaker four times. The linebacker said the difference in him this year has been how he prepared this summer. This season’s off-season workouts helped the defense get in better position this season, and it is making big plays because of it.

The workouts focused on increasing players’ explosiveness and improving their ability to change direction on a dime. These skills have allowed the defense to have its best season in the last three years so far, which Ariguzo said has stemmed from the Cats getting to the ball quicker to make plays.

“We’ve just been flying to the ball more,” Ariguzo said. “A lot of off-season workouts helped us to explode, push off one leg and change direction fast. That’s what I attribute it to, working hard over the summer.”

Williams lines up on the same side of the defense as Ariguzo and said he knows Ariguzo will be there to make the play if he can’t. Ariguzo has acted as an insurance blanket at times, and Williams said Ariguzo’s aggressiveness is why he has been so successful this season.

“It’s fun to be (on the same side). I know that he’s out there usually making a play,” Williams said. “He’s just so good in the open field and playing in space. One thing he’s really taken to heart is our E.A.T. (execute, attack, tackle) mentality, going for the big play instead of waiting back on your heels. He’s done a great job at going after plays and making big plays for us.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald is similarly very high on how Ariguzo is playing so far this season. He said the sophomore has a good grasp on the concepts and has been making plays while being active on the field. Fitzgerald, a former linebacker himself, said Ariguzo is fundamentally sound as well.

However, Fitzgerald knows just how big of a test the linebackers face this weekend in State College, Pa. He said Ariguzo could garner all-conference recognition, but the sophomore has something to prove on Saturday to announce to the rest of the Big Ten he belongs.

“Five games in and Chi Chi is playing at an all-Big Ten level,” Fitzgerald said. “(If) he wants to be all-Big Ten, he’s going to have to outplay the (Penn State) linebackers this week. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to outplay the best.”