Chicago Colleges: Collin Ellis

Big Ten morning links

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
7:00
AM CT
We missed Veterans' Day by about eight hours, but I think we've got time for one more pride-swelling story of patriotism to tee up the links this morning.

1.Many football teams like to carry American flags with them on to the field on Saturdays. Few players have been more deserving flag bearers than Tom Hruby. The Northwestern junior is a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL. The father of three, who lives in a dorm room during the week, made his college football debut Saturday on the Wildcats' kickoff team against Michigan. Hruby talked to his teammates about being a veteran Tuesday morning after practice, which Pat Fitzgerald called "one of the most special moments" he's had as a college coach. It's hard to imagine these types of stories ever growing old.

2. Welcome to the Top 25, Minnesota. The Gophers (7-2) are the fifth Big Ten team to join the College Football Playoff rankings this week. At No. 25, they find themselves almost as tangled up in playoff implications as any team in the nation this week. On Saturday, Minnesota hosts No. 8 Ohio State, the Big Ten's best remaining hope to land a spot in the playoff this season. A Gophers' win would severely damage the league's chance for a playoff bid.

One team that certainly will be cheering for Jerry Kill this weekend is TCU. The fourth-ranked Horned Frogs are ranked higher than Baylor (despite losing to the Bears, 61-58) because of a better nonconference schedule. A Minnesota win this weekend would make TCU's defeat of the Gophers in September an even stronger bargaining chip at the playoff table.

3. It's been a truly rotten year for quarterbacks at Indiana. Along with losing starter Nate Sudfeld and back-up Chris Covington to injuries, the Hoosiers also lost two others to transfers earlier in the year. One of them, Tre Roberson, has scored 22 touchdowns and totaled more than 2,100 yards of offense at Illinois State. Meanwhile, true freshman Zander Diamont has struggled to pilot the offense in a recent 0-3 stretch in which the Hoosiers have scored only three offensive touchdowns. Penn State didn't allow the Hoosiers' offense any points on Saturday, then kicked them in the teeth once more on the way out door -- a few days after the game Indiana's top quarterback recruit, three-star Tommy Stevens, switched his commitment to the Nittany Lions. That makes quarterback loss No. 5 this season.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the Big Ten...

East Division
West Division

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM CT
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Venric Mark, Sr., 5-8, 175; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Christian Jones, Sr., 6-3, 225; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.

B1G media day preview: Northwestern

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
12:30
PM CT
SEC media days finally have wrapped up, and several other leagues will be on the stage next week. The Big Ten holds its media festivities July 28-29 in Chicago, and we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Northwestern is next on the proverbial dais, as coach Pat Fitzgerald will be joined by quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Collin Ellis.

1. How much is the unionizing debate impacting Northwestern's season preparations?

The last we saw Wildcats players, they were casting a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to rule on the university's appeal of the regional office's decision that would permit a union. If the NLRB rejects the appeal, the votes would be unsealed. The timing for the NLRB's ruling is unknown, and even if the appeal is shot down, the players are expected to vote down the union. But the debate was a major distraction during spring practice and could surface again during a critical preseason, where Northwestern must come together. Expect Fitzgerald and the players to downplay the union talk, although it will be interesting to see what Campbell, a close friend of union catalyst Kain Colter, has to say.

2. How will the offensive approach change with Siemian at the controls?

The big plus coming out of the spring was Siemian establishing himself as the top quarterback and clear-cut team leader. He shared quarterbacking duties with Colter the past two seasons, which worked at times but also muddled Northwestern's offensive identity. Siemian's strength as a passer, combined with a more experienced offensive line, suggests Northwestern will return to the pass-first approach it used from 2007-2010. The Wildcats return their three pass-catchers from 2013 -- Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale -- and should be strong on the perimeter if they choose to feature the air game. But they also are extremely deep at running back as Venric Mark, a 2012 All-Big Ten selection, returns from injury. Northwestern undoubtedly will pass more with Siemian, but it can't neglect Mark, its most explosive player.

3. What are the biggest priorities entering preseason camp?

Fitzgerald admitted late in the spring that Northwestern is behind schedule after missing a bowl game and the practices that go along with them. The Wildcats also had 11 players miss the spring with injuries, including projected starters like Mark and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, and potential starters like defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Cornerback Daniel Jones, an opening day starter in 2012, also should be back from a knee injury. The defensive line will be a focal point as McEvilly, Odenigbo and Gibson return to the rotation. Northwestern also must figure out its running back rotation, how promising young defensive backs like Godwin Igwebuike will be used and who emerges in the kicking game, as All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs.

New LB leaders emerge around Big Ten

May, 14, 2014
May 14
1:00
PM CT
The NFL draft might not have reflected it, but the Big Ten lost several decorated defensive leaders this year. Spring practice marked a torch-passing around the league, particularly at the linebacker position, as players moved from supporting roles to the spotlight.

Let's take a look at a few of them:

Derek Landisch, Wisconsin

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 230 pounds; Nashotah, Wis.

Career profile: 28 games, three starts, 81 tackles, two fumbles recovered, one forced fumble, two passes defended

What they're saying: "He is a quiet leader, really a lot like Chris Borland. Not a bunch of rah-rah, but demands respect. He's done a nice job there." -- coach Gary Andersen

The skinny: Wisconsin loses almost its entire starting defensive front seven, including Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year and a starter for three-plus seasons. Landisch won't fill Borland's production and explosiveness by himself, but he's a solid player who should be able to guide younger players. "I'm trying to step up," Landisch said. "We need leaders on defense, we need an identity on defense."

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State LB Mike Hull says he hopes to emulate the leadership of Michael Mauti.
Mike Hull, Penn State

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 227 pounds; Canonsburg, Pa.

Career profile: 35 games, 154 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries

What they're saying: "Mike is very mature. He's football smart. I think he feels like it's his time. There's not a player I trust more than him." -- defensive coordinator Bob Shoop

The skinny: Hull has plenty of experience, but after understudying Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson, he steps to center stage this fall. He's a bit undersized but exceptionally strong, and while he's not the most vocal player, he understands the need to lead. "I try to be my own person, but I definitely take things from what Mauti did and what Glenn did," Hull said. "Mauti was such a great leader, demanded so much out of the guys. I want to be like the leader he was."

Quinton Alston, Iowa

Vitals: Senior, 6-1, 232 pounds; Sicklerville, N.J.

Career profile: 29 games, one start, 24 tackles, one fumble recovery

What they're saying: "James Morris really helped him out, showing how you need to lead. He takes command of the huddle when he's out there. We really like the progress that he's made. He's really got to be the quarterback of the defense." -- defensive coordinator Phil Parker

The skinny: Alston was Iowa's fourth linebacker last year and would have played more if starters Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey had left the field more. Communication is a strength of Alston's, and while he'll get help from a veteran line, he has to guide a new-look group that includes Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry.

Collin Ellis, Northwestern

Vitals: Senior, 6-2, 230 pounds; St. Gabriel, La.

Career profile: 33 games, 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups

What they're saying: "He's always given us leadership, but playing [middle linebacker] now, he's more positioned to do that because he's making more calls and he's communicating with all the groups. The players respect him." -- defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz

The skinny: Ellis started at outside linebacker last year but shifts to the middle after the loss of Damien Proby. He's a bit undersized for the middle spot but has good speed and intelligence. Ellis recorded two pick-sixes last year and moves well laterally. He also welcomes the increased leadership. "Last year, we were getting hurt up the middle, so that's where I'm supposed to fit," Ellis said. "It's a new position and obviously there's a bit of a learning curve I have to get over, but I played a bit of it last year.

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State

Vitals: Senior, 6-3, 252 pounds; New Baltimore, Mich.

Career profile: 41 games, 17 starts, 123 tackles 13 tackles for loss, four passes defended

What they're saying: "He's a more physical type of guy to begin with, so I think he brings a physical style in the box. He should be a little more at home there." -- defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi

The skinny: Jones moves from weakside linebacker to the middle, where he replaces three-year starter Max Bullough. He has the size to play the position but must master the schematic complexities that Bullough picked up so well in his career. Jones also talked this spring about leading with confidence to get his teammates to trust him.

Video: Northwestern LB Collin Ellis

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
3:30
PM CT
video Northwestern's Collin Ellis talks with Adam Rittenberg about moving to middle linebacker this spring and how the team is handling the upcoming union vote

What to know: Northwestern union vote

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
1:00
PM CT


The next 24 hours are pivotal and historic in college sports. Right now, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors are meeting in Indianapolis, where they're expected to approve a proposal granting autonomy to the major revenue-generating conferences. This would allow the big leagues to provide significant benefits for athletes.

Then, on Friday morning, up to 76 Northwestern players will vote whether to form a union after being deemed employees of the school by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Here's what you need to know about the vote:

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has voiced his strong opposition to players unionizing.
Where: The N Club room inside McGaw Hall, just north of Ryan Field.

When: There are two voting windows, 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m. CT and 10 a.m.-noon CT

Who: Scholarship football players who are enrolled and participating in team activities. Walk-ons or incoming scholarship players who have yet to enroll are not part of the vote. Players are not required to vote.

Voting procedure: A simple majority is required to form the union. The NLRB will monitor the vote. Officials from both Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players in a union, can observe the vote.

Possible outcomes: Although Friday's vote is important, its outcome is tied to a pending appeal by Northwestern of the regional director's ruling. If the NLRB's national office chooses to consider the appeal, it could overturn the original decision, effectively killing the union push. If so, the results of Friday's vote would never come to light. If the NLRB national office denies the appeal, the vote would be revealed. If a majority of players vote for the union, it would be formed and the players could attempt to collectively bargain with Northwestern. CAPA, led by president Ramogi Huma, would represent the players in negotiations with the school. If Northwestern chooses not to collectively bargain, the case would go to federal court. If the players vote down the union and the NLRB denies the appeal, confirming players as Northwestern employees, there could be another union vote in 12 months.

Lobbying: Both CAPA and Northwestern have briefed players about the implications of unionizing in recent weeks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald outlined his anti-union position in an extensive Q&A with players and their families. Fitzgerald is allowed to state his views and provide information, but he cannot make promises or threats about the vote, nor can he solicit players about how they will vote. CAPA and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who launched the union push in January, also have been in contact with players about the vote. Neither side can meet with players in the 24 hours before the vote.

The buzz: Several senior leaders on the team, including quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, have voiced their opposition to the union. Linebacker Collin Ellis told ESPN.com that players entered the campaign with the hope of getting change at the national level, not to cast Northwestern in a negative light. There's undoubtedly a pro-union group on the team who have been quieter leading up to the vote. Many others have weighed in, from former Northwestern players to other college coaches and players. Former Northwestern president Henry Bienen questioned whether Northwestern could continue with big-time athletics if it had a union. Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced their support for CAPA and the union push. So have union leaders both inside and outside the sports world. No one has suggested the status quo remains, but many question whether unionizing is the right mechanism for players to improve their situation.

A few more thoughts:

  • The timing of the vote is fascinating, on the heels of the Division I Board of Directors meeting. An approval could signal to players that new benefits are on the horizon, such as enhanced athletic scholarships, continuing education and long-term medical coverage. Would a union be worth it at that point? Remember, neither side can meet with the players today, so they would have to track the Division I meeting on their own.
  • Check out more coverage of the union vote and its implications here and here and here and here.
  • Media are not permitted in the voting room or on campus near McGaw Hall, so coverage of Friday's vote could be limited. Northwestern is allowing players to talk to the media if they so choose, but Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and other officials aren't expected to speak.

Wildcats focus on firming up midsection

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
3:30
PM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

Sure, the unit was on the field for the play that encapsulated a hard-luck season: a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory and set off pandemonium in Lincoln. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is right when he states: "We were five plays away from winning five more games, and we needed to make five more plays on defense somewhere."

The defense could have collected a few more takeaways in Big Ten play after a surge early in the season. It could have made another stop against Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Iowa that might have been the difference.

But if Northwestern's offense is anywhere close to its normal production, the team easily wins seven or eight games. End of story.

The offseason spotlight is on the offense as it ditches a two-quarterback system -- senior Trevor Siemian will be the sole operator -- and likely returns to its pass-first roots. Things are much quieter for the defense, which returns nine starters, including all four in the secondary. It's possibly the team's strongest position group.

Collin Ellis
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern linebacker Collin Ellis is moving inside, hoping to help boost a defense that was a little too soft in the middle in 2013.
It's not a stretch to suggest this could be the strongest defense in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern can go two or three deep at every secondary spot, thanks to the emergence of several redshirt freshmen this spring. Veteran playmakers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis return at linebacker, and speedy ends Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson spark the pass rush.

But perimeter strength might not mean much if Northwestern doesn't firm up its core.

"Defensive football is a lot like baseball," Fitzgerald said. "You better be great at the catcher, pitcher and center fielder, the belly of your defense, and that shortstop and second baseman are plenty important, too. [In football] you've got to be strong at D-tackle, the linebacker position and safety. I'm not minimizing the ends and the corners, but if you don't have those things inside, the belly of your defense gets exposed.

"You can't stop people."

Northwestern didn't stop the inside run consistently enough in 2013. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde pounded away for 168 rush yards and three touchdowns on a night when quarterback Braxton Miller struggled. Other running backs -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Minnesota's David Cobb, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford -- eclipsed 100 yards against the Wildcats, who surrendered 192 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.

Injuries at defensive tackle, particularly the midseason loss of Sean McEvilly, hurt the Wildcats. Northwestern needs McEvilly and Chance Carter to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar to keep developing. Both Robbins and Kuhar received increased practice time this spring as McEvilly missed the whole session following foot surgery and Carter missed the first nine workouts because of injury.

"Everyone knows the fastest way to get somewhere is straight down the middle," Carter said. "That goes with the D-tackles first. We're the first line of defense. We have to be more fundamentally crisp."

The safety spot should be fine as Ibraheim Campbell, an excellent run defender with 262 career tackles, anchors the secondary. But there are questions at middle linebacker as Ellis moves over from the strong side to replace Damien Proby.

Ellis, lighter than Proby at 233 pounds, admits he has to play the position differently, using his speed and lateral quickness.

"As a linebacking corps, we are quick," Ellis said. "What we're saying is the defensive tackles, if they get in the wrong gap, stay there and we can recognize that and fill."

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.

Spring game preview: Northwestern

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:30
PM CT
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday ..

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.

B1G spring position breakdown: LB

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
1:30
PM CT
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Spring preview capsules: West Division

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
9:00
AM CT
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Offseason to-do list: Northwestern

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
11:00
AM CT
The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists

Season wrap: Northwestern

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
7:30
AM CT
When Northwestern opened Big Ten play Oct. 5, it had a perfect record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and Ohio State on the ropes. When the Wildcats concluded their home schedule Nov. 23, they did so in a largely empty stadium and watched Michigan State celebrate a Legends Division title. Things fell apart quickly and dramatically for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which missed a bowl game for the first time since 2007 and endured a losing regular season (5-7) for the first time since 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as head coach.

A combination of poor play, injuries and extremely lousy luck doomed Northwestern, which lost two games in overtime and a third on a Hail Mary as time expired at Nebraska. Star running back/returner Venric Mark missed almost the entire season, and the offense never found a steady rhythm in league play. The defense held up decently but left too many plays on the field. Fitzgerald often uses the phrase "flush it" when asked about bad plays or games. Northwestern certainly should flush the 2013 season.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. He played through pain for much of the season but continued to produce, rushing for 489 yards and five touchdowns and completing 78.8 percent of his passes despite limited opportunities. Colter put Northwestern in position to beat both Iowa and Nebraska, but mistakes elsewhere doomed the team. He also caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State. Running back Treyvon Green merits a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Tyler Scott. Scott finished a solid career by triggering Northwestern's pass rush with six sacks, 10 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries. He also had two forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebackers Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo were solid.

Best moment: It came in the opener against Cal, as Northwestern overcame the absences of both Colter and Mark to rally for a 44-30 win. Ellis recorded pick-sixes of 56 and 40 yards in the second half en route to earning national defensive player of the week honors. The win sparked Northwestern to a 4-0 start, but things went downhill from there.

Worst moment: The Nebraska Hail Mary encapsulated a season of what-ifs. The Wildcats jumped ahead 21-7, blew the lead, couldn't punch in a late touchdown but still led by three with four seconds left. After Northwestern called a timeout (that some questioned), Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp somehow slipped behind the defense and caught a deflected pass for the game winner as time expired.

Northwestern bears down for takeaways

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
1:00
PM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows football fans in Chicago spend their Sundays watching a defense fixated on takeaways. As a Chicago Bears fan, he's one of those people.

[+] EnlargeIbraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Ben MargotIbraheim Campbell is leading Northwestern's charge for more turnovers having picked off passes in five straight games.
Fitzgerald hopes the same folks see the same thing on Saturdays as they tune in for Wildcats' games. So far this season, "Chicago's Big Ten team" has embraced the takeaway trend trademarked by Chicago's NFL team.

After topping the Big Ten takeaways chart last season with 29, Northwestern is tied with Michigan State for the league lead with eight through the first three games (tied for sixth nationally). All eight Wildcats takeaways have been interceptions, which leads the FBS, and they've converted them into 45 points.

Northwestern has 17 interceptions in its last six games, stretching back to last season, and junior safety Ibrahaim Campbell has picked off passes in each of the past five contests, a new team record. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions Aug. 31 in the season opener at, returning both for touchdowns and claiming national defensive player of the week honors.

"I don't know, maybe it's just a Chicago thing," Fitzgerald said following Tuesday's practice. "We're definitely inspired by [the Bears'] defense and really, we’ve pulled a lot of their plays off and given them as examples to the players."

The Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season and were among the league leaders for much of former coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Even though Smith is gone, the Bears already have six takeaways in their first two games, tied for the second-most in the NFL.

Football coaches are known to go far and wide to find effective teaching tools for their players. Northwestern's staff simply looked "down the road," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, at what the Bears have been doing for years.

Last season, Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had players watch video of Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman forcing fumbles with his "Peanut punch" move. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles last season and boasts 39 for his career.

"We took some highlights off TV and showed how they’re always punching at the ball," Hankwitz said. "And we did cause some fumbles. [Former safety Jared Carpenter] caused one, punching the ball out. Ibraheim caused two, punching the ball.

"Now that they see that it works, we're starting to build a little more of a takeaway culture."

Northwestern had at least one forced fumble in nine games last season, jarring the ball loose three times in wins against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. Campbell and three defensive linemen -- Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt -- all recorded multiple forced fumbles.

Hankwitz also started to mix coverages more as the season went along. The different looks, combined with increased pressure from the line, led to a surge of interceptions, including four in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.

"Like anything in life, you achieve what you emphasize," Fitzgerald said. "I don't want these high school coaches to think we're doing some magical turnover circuit or rubbing on the ball with some magic stick and all of a sudden it comes to us. It's just emphasizing it and making our guys aware up front to the quick game of, 'If you're not necessarily going to get home, get your hands up,' being aware of route progressions and where a quarterback may go."

Hankwitz credits Northwestern's linemen for getting their arms in passing lanes, noting that three interceptions this season stemmed from deflections, including both of Ellis' pick-sixes against Cal. Scott and fellow linemen Dean Lowry and Chance Carter already have combined for eight pass deflections.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Campbell has been the face of the team's takeaway surge. Although Hankwitz has coordinated defenses since 1982, he can't remember another one of his players recording interceptions in five straight games.

Campbell attributes the streak to simply maximizing his playmaking opportunities.

"With the time I’ve been playing, the game has slowed down tremendously," said the junior, in his third year as a starter. "I know what to look for more, and it's paid off a lot."

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe "Peanut Punch," a favorite weapon of the Bears' Charles Tillman has caught on at Northwestern.
Northwestern has become a more opportunistic defense in recent games, but it remains vulnerable in certain areas, surrendering 442.3 yards per game, including 319.3 pass yards, second most in the Big Ten. Hankwitz notes that most of the yards stem from a few big plays. Several have come against redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White, who stepped in for injured starter Daniel Jones against Cal and quickly became a target for opposing quarterbacks.

There's no doubt that takeaways can cover up yards allowed -- turnover margin is the game's most important metric -- but Campbell wants to tighten things up before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Ohio State.

"If we have explosion plays going against us, a takeaway isn't going to make that go away," he said. "Those are still things we need to fix, but it obviously helps because you can’t have an explosion play if you don't have the ball."

Fitzgerald's goal is to have a defense built on "the complete and total commitment to taking the ball away." The Wildcats aren't there yet. Although takeaways for points seemed to rescue Northwestern at Cal, Fitzgerald was disappointed that the Wildcats couldn't corral three Cal fumbles. Western Michigan coughed up the ball last Saturday at Ryan Field, but Northwestern couldn't recover it.

Wildcats players will continue to think turnover, just like the Bears do.

"They’re great tacklers and everything like that, but they're excellent at taking the ball away," Campbell said. "That's something we're trying to create here.

"We’re right down the street from Chicago, so it would be a great thing to establish in the city."

Collin Ellis finds a home at Northwestern

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
3:58
PM CT
Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis emerged from relative obscurity to help save the Wildcats in their opener at California last week. Ellis returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in his team's 44-30 win, earning Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week honors.

The best thing about the night, Ellis said, was that his mother and stepfather were in the stands watching.

"My mom was crying a little bit," he said this week. "I teared up a little bit, too."

It was an emotional breakout performance for Ellis, who almost didn't make it to Northwestern because of a family tragedy.

Ellis grew up in Baton Rouge, La., just minutes from LSU's Tiger Stadium, but decided early on in high school career that he wanted to use football as his way into an elite academic university. He committed to Northwestern the summer before his senior year and told every college that was interested in him that he'd made up his mind.

[+] EnlargeCollin Ellis
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern LB Collin Ellis' huge performance in the opener justified the coaches' belief in him.
But his father, Greg, died unexpectedly on March 21, 2010 -- Collin's senior year of high school. In the aftermath, Collin -- who has two brothers and a sister -- initially thought he would stay closer to home for college to help his mother, Becky, with the family.

"It's easy after something like that to say, 'Hey, look, you've got to move on and deal with it,'" said Joey Thibodeaux, his prep coach at The Dunham School. "But he was making a very major decision in moving thousands of miles from home and away from his family. That was tough. Collin did feel a tug to stay home."

Ellis' family told him that going to Northwestern was the right thing to do and that it was what his father wanted. Ellis knew he had found the right school when Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald and assistant Randy Bates came to Louisiana for Greg Ellis' funeral.

"My dad wanted me to come to Northwestern more than any other school in the nation," Ellis said. "I feel like I'm making him proud by doing that. It's obviously a very hard deal, but football was my outlet and way to get away from it."

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior had shown promise earlier in his Northwestern career but had trouble staying healthy. He suffered broken bones in both hands that held him out of action, and he entered this year locked in a battle with Drew Smith for the starting job at outside linebacker. He impressed the coaching staff with his work during preseason practice.

"This is probably as healthy as he's been in two years," Fitzgerald said. "He's a very talented athlete, and for the first time in probably two years we got a glimpse of him at close to 100 percent healthy."

Wildcats fans liked what they saw from Ellis in Week 1. He grabbed both his interceptions on tipped balls before sprinting to the end zone. The first one covered 54 yards, while the second went 40 yards and gave his team a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. When he grabbed the second pick and saw daylight, Ellis remembers thinking, "I can't believe this is actually happening."

That he possessed such good ball skills came as no surprise to Thibodeaux. At The Dunham School, Ellis played fullback in a Wing-T offense and rushed for about 1,200 yards as a senior, earning district offensive MVP honors. Ellis would occasionally line up at receiver and Wildcat quarterback as well. Playing for a small school, though, Ellis received only mild interest from Southern schools including LSU, where his family still has season tickets. Bates found out about Ellis and invited him to a Northwestern camp, where the connection was born.

"He was a great athlete who could do a lot of things, but schools didn't know what to recruit him as," Thibodeaux said. "He was 205, 210 pounds, and they didn't know if he would grow. I don't even think Northwestern knew where to play him at first."

Ellis has spent time at all three linebacker spots for the Wildcats and started 10 games in 2012, though he finished with only nine tackles. His production had yet to match his potential until last weekend.

"I got to the point where I was tired of not performing," he said. "That motivated me every morning to get up and make myself better in any possible way, and it all started in the weight room.

"Then it really came down to this summer, when I started excelling at what I was doing. It all clicked. I finally know where all the help is, when I can be aggressive and when not to be aggressive. Coaches always say 'Do your job,' but it never really resonated with me that if you actually do your job, you'll make more plays."

Ellis doesn't want to be a one-hit wonder with those two pick-sixes. He says he missed out on making several other plays in that Cal game, including another possible interception. He wants to make a season-long impact.

His toughest adjustment at Northwestern was leaving the South and all the outdoor activities he loves in Louisiana. Ellis is an avid fisher and hunter whose favorite pastime is bowhunting deer. Thibodeaux remembers Ellis showing up to practice in his hunting gear.

Ellis saves most of his hunting these days for school breaks when he goes home, though he has found some good spots for salmon fishing in Lake Michigan. Evanston might not be much like Baton Rouge, but Ellis knows he's in the right place. The place where his father wanted him to be.

"He lived vicariously through me because he never got to play football," he said. "It feels so good to get to honor him and his memory this way."

Shorthanded Wildcats survive against Cal

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
1:56
AM CT


Northwestern lost quarterback Kain Colter minutes into Saturday's game and never had full use of star running back Venric Mark.

One of the nation's most dynamic offensive backfields wouldn't be a factor in a tricky road opener against Cal and its potent "Bear Raid" offense.

So what did Northwestern do? It found another way to win. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions for touchdowns, tight end Dan Vitale sparked the passing game and third-string running back Treyvon Green stepped up for Mark on the ground.

Aaaand ... there might have been a few injury flops involved.

It added up to an exhausting 44-30 Northwestern victory against a plucky Cal team that gave the 22nd-ranked Wildcats all they could handle. Bears true freshman quarterback Jared Goff passed for 445 yards and two touchdowns, but he showed his age with three second-half interceptions, including the game-changer, which Ellis returned 56 yards to the end zone late in the third quarter.

Ellis, who beat out Drew Smith for Northwestern's third starting linebacker spot, was all over the field in an effort that at least will earn him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Northwestern also generated a decent pass rush, and safety Ibraheim Campbell picked off Goff in the closing minutes.

Cal made plenty of plays, attacking through the air with talented receivers Chris Harper (11 catches, 151 yards, 2 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (13 receptions, 145 yards). Despite a limited playbook, the Bears showed how dangerous they could be.

Northwestern was limited, too, but not by design. Colter left the game early after taking a shot to his head and his left shoulder. He was re-evaluated at halftime but ruled out, left to stew on the sideline, unable to run the nearly unstoppable zone-read with Mark.

As for Mark, the All-America returner wasn't used on returns and only played for stretches. He wasn't listed on the team's injury report and practiced throughout the preseason. It'll be interesting to see what Coach Pat Fitzgerald says about Mark's status going forward.

Northwestern surged on special teams in 2012, but Cal held a decided edge in the kicking game, scoring its first touchdown on a fake field goal and recovering a Wildcats fumble on a kickoff return. At least All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien came through three field goals.

The little-used Green also stepped up late with a 55-yard burst to take Northwestern out of its own territory. He finished off the drive with a 6-yard plunge. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian had a big first half in relief of Colter but struggled a bit down the stretch.

Injuries were a big story for Northwestern throughout the game, both real and (possibly) imagined. Wildcats players were down after many plays in the second half. Cal coach Sonny Dykes clearly thought something was up (the Bears, ironically, were the team accused of faking injuries against Oregon). Northwestern also caught a break when Cal standout linebacker Chris McCain was ejected for targeting.

A wild game for the Wildcats, but it usually is just that. They survived and advanced in a Pac-12 stadium, not an easy place for Big Ten teams to win.

It's a good bet Northwestern enters its Oct. 5 home showdown against Ohio State at 4-0. The Wildcats still have never lost an opener under Fitzgerald.

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