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Football: Wildcats’ defense takes shape in final spring practice

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Football: Wildcats’ defense takes shape in final spring practice

Anthony Walker wraps up a ballcarrier and forces a fumble. The redshirt freshman linebacker will play a more prominent role in Northwestern’s defense next season.

Anthony Walker wraps up a ballcarrier and forces a fumble. The redshirt freshman linebacker will play a more prominent role in Northwestern’s defense next season.

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Anthony Walker wraps up a ballcarrier and forces a fumble. The redshirt freshman linebacker will play a more prominent role in Northwestern’s defense next season.

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Anthony Walker wraps up a ballcarrier and forces a fumble. The redshirt freshman linebacker will play a more prominent role in Northwestern’s defense next season.

Bobby Pillote, Sports Editor

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Northwestern wrapped up its spring practice schedule Saturday, and despite some uncertainties on the defensive side of the ball the Wildcats feel good about their stop unit ahead of training camp.

NU lost linebacker Collin Ellis and safety Ibraheim Campbell, the two anchors of the defense, after the 2014 season. Stepping up to take their places are two redshirt freshmen who played sparingly last year, but linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike both seem confident in their ability to take on a starting role.

“I think Collin Ellis really helped prepare me and develop me last year,” Walker said. “My No. 1 goal is to be the best linebacker when I leave Northwestern.”

Only time will tell if Walker is able to advance NU’s tradition of excellent linebackers, but he certainly got off to a good start last year. Appearing in all 12 games, he recorded 51 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Igwebuike likewise shined in limited playing time last season, appearing in 11 contests and tying the team high of three interceptions, which all came in the Cats’ Oct. 4 upset of then-No. 17 Wisconsin.

It comes as no surprise that Igwebuike shares Walker’s enthusiasm for the coming season.

“I’m definitely ready,” Igwebuike said. “I came to Northwestern to play big time football.”

The pair will form the heart of the defense in 2015, and their transition should be eased by plenty of players returning around them.

The veteran duo of cornerbacks junior Nick VanHoose and sophomore Matthew Harris will hold down the outside, giving Igwebuike free range to play over the top and roam the middle of the field.

“I’m going into my fifth year, I’ve been here a long time,” VanHoose said. “I definitely know the defense well.”

And in the front seven, Walker will be playing behind a deep and experienced defensive line that may be the best position group for NU.

That front is anchored by juniors Dean Lowry, Max Chapman and Deonte Gibson, a trio that had a combined six sacks and 69 tackles last season, and will be bolstered in 2015 by the return of senior Sean McEvilly, who missed all of 2014 with an injury.

“I think we’re very talented,” Lowry said. “We have a good mix of experience and young talent.”

The key for the Cats will be bringing the pieces together. Injuries hamstrung the defense in 2014, with Campbell and Ellis missing a combined 10 starts, and NU ranked 54th in yards allowed per game last season as a result.

A better effort will likely be needed in 2015 if the team hopes to return to a bowl game with a first-year starter at quarterback. Nothing is set at the end of spring practice, but even with some new faces in place, the Cats’ stop unit appears to be on an upward trajectory.

Stephanie Kelly contributed reporting.

Email: bpillote@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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