Northwestern LBs no longer the weak link

For years, Northwestern linebacker Quentin Davie felt like a contestant on a popular British game show that briefly gained popularity in the United States.

You know, the show with the smarmy host.

"Since my freshman year, it's always been, we were the weakest group," Davie said. "And on paper, we were the weakest group. All around, nobody really recognized us or gave us credit."

That will change in 2010.

Northwestern's linebackers are unquestionably the strength of a defense that has stabilized during the past two seasons under coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The Wildcats finished fifth in the Big Ten in total defense in both 2008 and 2009, which doesn't sound great but marks a significant improvement from the struggles under previous coordinators Greg Colby and Jerry Brown.

This year's unit must replace three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten selections Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith. Also gone is defensive end Corey Wootton, a fourth-round pick in last month's NFL draft.

The linebackers, meanwhile, return just about everyone. Davie is back after a quietly productive junior season in which he recorded 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, six quarterback hurries, an interception and four passes defended. He's joined by middle linebacker Nate Williams, who trailed on Davie in tackles last year with 86 tackles to go along with two interceptions, a forced fumble, seven tackles for loss and six passes defended.

"We're the guys that everybody looks up to now," Davie said. "We have two of the most productive players in the linebacker room, so that's a good thing, and that's just natural leadership. The linebackers are supposed to lead the defense, and we do."

Ben Johnson and David Arnold split the starts at the third linebacker spot in 2009, but Northwestern's depth at the position allowed the coaches to move Arnold to safety, a much bigger concern. Johnson, meanwhile, is being pushed by Bryce McNaul for the top job.

Reserves Roderick Goodlow, David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Tim Riley also provide insurance.

"It's as deep as we've had in a number of years," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We were fortunate to redshirt Proby and Riley, and we played Roderick [as a true freshman]. That's a really talented young group, and you couple that with Williams and Ben Johnson and Q. Davie and Bryce McNaul, those guys have played a lot of football.

"It's time for them to take the next step."

Early in his head-coaching career, Fitzgerald talked openly about Northwestern going toward a 3-4 alignment. That plan has been scrapped despite the depth at linebacker, as the Wildcats will remain in a 4-3 set.

Davie, the team's top NFL prospect for 2011, missed part of spring practice with a foot injury but returned for the spring game and looked sharp. After going through a significant physical transformation before the 2009 season, Davie spent the winter and spring working on his speed and explosiveness, focusing mainly on his legs.

The senior hopes to be the strongest link for arguably the Wildcats' strongest group in 2010.

"It feels good to be fast and big at the same time," said Davie, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. "I always want to be the best, and being the best means hopefully playing in the NFL. I'm focusing right now on college, to be the best here, where I'm at, and that will take me where I need to go."