B1G shoes to fill: Northwestern

Northwestern is up next in our weeklong series looking at the most important vacancies each Big Ten team has to fill this offseason.

The Wildcats lose several key figures from a disappointing, distraction-riddled 5-7 season last fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian is gone, as are some of his top receiving targets. Safety Ibraheim Campbell also leaves behind a void in the defensive backfield. The toughest shoes to fill, though, will dig their cleats in closer to the line of scrimmage.

B1G SHOES TO FILL: Brandon Vitabile, C

Why: As a redshirt freshman in 2011, Vitabile nudged Northwestern’s returning starter from center to guard to make room for himself in the starting lineup. He held on to that spot for the next 50 games, making this September’s season opener against Stanford the first time in a long time the Wildcats won’t have Vitabile at the center of their offensive line. The two-time captain was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick twice in his career and made big contributions as a leader in the locker room.

Replacement candidates: Brad North (6-2, 280, redshirt sophomore), Ian Park (6-4, 290, redshirt junior)

The skinny: North was one of the top 10 high school center prospects when he left Texas for Northwestern’s campus in 2013. He has yet to earn any significant playing time in college, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said he expects North to compete for a starting spot this year after serving as Vitabile’s understudy. He will have to beat our Park, who played in 11 games last season on special teams and as a reserve guard. He started eight games in 2013, but he will have to get comfortable snapping the ball to win the job. Fitzgerald expects all five starting spots on a line that performed poorly a season ago to be contested during the offseason. None of those battles will be more important than the one at center.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB

Why: Ariguzo is one of a few impact players Northwestern needs to replace on defense. He leaves after back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles. His 104 stops as a senior put him among the top 10 tacklers in the Big Ten for 2014. He also had an ability to create big turnovers during his lengthy career, forcing 11 of them during his 39 starts over the last three seasons. The versatile outside linebacker settled into the Will position and won three consecutive honorable mentions on the Big Ten all-conference team.

Replacement candidates: Joseph Jones (6-1, 225, junior), Nathan Fox (6-3, 222, freshman), Jaylen Prater (6-0, 235, junior)

The skinny: Two out of three linebacker spots are expected to go to returning starters Anthony Walker and Drew Smith. That leaves a handful of unproven players to battle for Ariguzo’s empty Will position. Jones played in six games and accumulated most of his five tackles on special teams. Prater (four tackles) is in a similar boat. Fox, an incoming freshman, was an impressive, physical inside linebacker at Clear Lake High School in Houston. He could slide out to the Will position in August if he proves he’s ready to be on the field as a rookie.