Monday Practice Photo Gallery
They know. Oh, yeah. They most certainly know, and they admit it. They, unlike so many who inhabit their little slice of the universe, do not feign ignorance and claim they never listen to the radio or watch the TV or read papers or magazines or any of the countless web sites. These linebackers do all of that and so yes, darn straight, they know just what is being said about them.
They know they are perceived as the mystery ingredient in the mix that is the 'Cat defense. They know they are viewed as the neophytes of a group that is blessed with experience in all other areas. They know, most stingingly, that ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett recently viewed them as bottom feeders when he ranked them as the 12th-best, or the very worst, group of linebackers in the BIg Ten. "Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. . .," he wrote that day. "Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast."
"Understandably, we're the question mark. Nobody knows what we can do," says junior David Nwabuisi, who appears destined to replace Williams in the middle. "So understandably people are wondering what we're going to do. So we just take it, we're going to show people what we can do this year. We're gonna come out there and knock some heads and see what happens."
We tell him here that, in the past week, we've heard both Fitzgerald and any number of his teammates talk about the chip resting on many a 'Cat shoulder. Do the linebackers carry one as well?
"You've got to have a chip on your shoulder. You've got to be motivated," says Nwabuisi. "We see what they say about us. We read things. We hear things from people. So we know what everybody thinks and we're definitely going to use it as motivation in our room."
When they're in that room, we wonder, does their position coach Randy Bates remind them of how they are viewed?
"Yeah. He reminds us of what everybody is saying about us. We hear it from everybody. We hear it from all angles. Bates takes offense at that too. It's his position, it's his group, he's our coach, he wants us to succeed. So he gets into that room, he's on us. He knows what we're capable of. We have a lot of talent in that room. It's just up to us to prove it, to make him look good."
"We're under the radar. Just put it that way," the outside linebacker Bryce McNaul will say minutes later. "But are we concerned about that? No. We're concerned about the product we're able to put on the field and, judging by today and last week, I think we're getting better."
So he's not bothered that his group is rated as the Big Ten's worst?
"You're a college football player, a linebacker at that, and we like to pride ourselves as leaders on defense. So it's a shot to your pride and to your ego when someone takes a jab at you," he now admits. "And if it's on your coach's mind, it's going to trickle down and be on your mind. That goes with everything in camp and football in general. So does it kind of fan our flame a little bit? Yeah. Sure. We'll take it."
Fitzgerald, as ESPN.com's Bennett said in his blog, does believe he has talent at linebacker, talent that is blessed with speed and athleticism as well as the requisite attitude of an assassin. Yet the only one in the group with extensive starting experience is McNaul, the fifth-year senior who has done that 23 times. "He's been there a long time," says Nwabuisi, when asked for an analysis of his sidekick. "So he recognizes things well, he reacts fast and he wants to be physical all the time. He always wants to come up on the run. The guy's definitely the most-experienced person in our room and he knows how to come downhill."
The majority of Nwabuisi's own experience is in nickel packages and that is true too of senior Ben Johnson, the outside linebacker opposite McNaul. But Damien Proby and Tim Riley and Timmy Vernon, who are currently listed as the backups to Nwabuisi (Proby) and McNaul (the other two), are lightly-experienced sophomores, and Johnson's challengers for the Sam spot are the redshirt freshmen Colin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo. "Colin's a really physical guy. He loves hittin', he loves hittin'. He's gotta keep his head up, but he loves hittin'," Nwabuisi says of Ellis.
"Chi Chi plays really well. He's fast, he's athletic, he just needs to focus on knowing exactly where to be. Sometimes he'll float a little bit. But him and Colin, they're younger, so they're just learning their fits right now. But the good thing about it is Colin is really physical and Chi Chi is physical when he has to be. They both look good out there. And Ben, Ben's been there just like Bryce. He's been there all five years. He knows when to trigger, he knows when to fit, and Ben's so fast. He has speed on his side. It's going to be a challenge to see what happens out there."
What happens out there will surely be one of the most-watched stories at Camp Kenosha, where the 'Cats practiced for the first time on Monday morning, and so here we have one of those situations that McNaul calls "unique to the realm of sports." We have a situation where friends are challenging friends, where friends are competing against friends, where friends are trying to transform their own dreams into reality and relegate the dreams of friends to the dust bin.
"And it's more than just friendship, too," McNaul says. "It's a brotherhood that's formed out here on the field, but it's also formed back there in the meeting room and the dorms and the lunch room and around campus. You're really walking side-by-side with these guys everywhere in life."
So how do you compartmentalize that and go out and compete?
"It's not necessarily that you're trying to beat the guy in front of you. It's you're trying to be the best player that you can be," he says. "When we take that approach, we're all the best player we can be when our time comes. That's what we're going to need to be successful as a defense."
"Everybody wants to plays, so our whole room, it's just constant competition," David Nwabuisi will finally say. "But at the end of the day, we're all trying to make each other better. It's whatever is best for this team. You want to be the best. But at the end of the day there's another guy who wants to be the best too and he's always going to be working just as hard as you or maybe harder. So you've always got to push yourself to the next level, and you've got to help each other out too. The more you talk about things, the more you learn it better. So if you know something, you'll know it better if you teach somebody else. So you've always got to push each other and prepare each other.
"At the end of the day, we all know we can play. We just have to go out there and prove it to everyone else."