Spring breakout player: Northwestern

Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible.

Northwestern has a vacant starting spot at linebacker, and don't be surprised if it goes to ...

Drew Smith, LB, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds

Smith appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season, mostly on special teams but also as a reserve linebacker. He performed well, racking up 17 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, to go along with a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Thursday mentioned that he's looking for flexibility with his linebackers and safeties -- players strong enough to play the former but athletic enough to play the latter.

At 205 pounds with good speed, Smith is a good athlete who loves dropping the hammer on ball carriers. He rushed the passer well against Syracuse, Nebraska and Michigan last year. "He thoroughly enjoys contact," Fitzgerald told reporters Thursday. "I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off, and he goes around doing that."

Northwestern returns two starters at linebacker, although middle linebacker Damien Proby is sitting out spring practice with an injury. Smith will compete with Collin Ellis and others for an outside linebacker spot opposite Chi Chi Ariguzo. If he continues to knock people's lips off the rest of the spring, he'll see a lot of field time in the fall.