Aug. 7, 2013
Not yet three full days into Northwestern's 2013 training camp, it is already evident on the field that the Wildcats are benefiting from heightened competition for playing time at a number of positions. One such position is at outside linebacker, where a pair of hard-hitting competitors are pushing each other each time they step out on the practice field. NUsports.com's Skip Myslenski visited Tuesday with both of them and provides a look into their similar outlook toward training camp.
The one is Collin Ellis. Back when he was growing up, when he was a mere five-year old sprite in the Louisiana town of St. Gabriel, he and his brother would spend their evenings facing off on their family's front lawn. First the brother would take their glow-in-the-dark Nerf football and tuck it under his arm and charge, and then here came Ellis to cold cock him. "And then, same thing," he once remembered. "I would take the ball and he would hit me. I always loved to hit."
"Yes. It's fun," he more recently said when asked about hitting. "Whenever you really get into somebody and everybody's like, 'O-O-O-O-O-O,' it gets your blood going. It gets your blood boiling whenever you can blindside somebody or really stick somebody. When you can impose your will on somebody else, it's really cool."
The other is Drew Smith.
Back in the spring, back when the 'Cats were in the midst of their offseason workouts, his coach Pat Fitzgerald
said of him, "He thoroughly enjoys contact. I like guys who like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off. He likes running around and doing that."
"That's pretty accurate," Smith himself said when asked about that observation. "That's what I live for. I play defense for a reason. I like to hit people. That's my job. So when I get a chance to hit somebody, force my will on them, that's what I do."
The one is Collin Ellis. He is a 6-foot-2 junior who started as a redshirt freshman; who contributed as a reserve a year ago; who has battled through some nagging injuries ("Soft tissue stuff. Nothing major, but it's prohibited his ability to get stronger," Fitzgerald says of them); and who is now, after a rigorous offseason, finally healthy and physically reformed. "This was probably the hardest I've worked in the offseason," he explains. "I got in and did as much as I possibly could with Coach (Jay) Hooten (the director of football performance) just getting my body right, eating the right things, watching film, just doing the necessary steps to better my game.
"I lost a little weight because I felt I was being hindered. I was up to like 237 and I wasn't moving as good as I was, or as good as I could have been. You could see it on film. You could see that I wasn't breaking as quick and not making the plays that I should. So I dropped eight pounds, something like that. I'm down to 230, 228. So I feel I'm moving like I was in high school, which feels great. I'm in the best shape in my life. The little things in the off-season really helped."
The other is Drew Smith. He is a 6-foot-1, 210-pound sophomore who grew up admiring the style of former Raven linebacker Ray Lewis; who was known as Andrew when he was a cornerback at Cincinnati's Colerain High School; who had his name truncated by various teammates when he joined the 'Cats ("I go by either/or, so it really doesn't matter. Whatever the flavor of the day is, that's what my name is. There really isn't anything special behind it," he says of that); who redshirted as a freshman; who gained some notice late last season with his aggressive play; and who is now locked in an avid competition with Ellis to be the linebacker who starts beside Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo. "I'm going to bring it every play," he says when asked for a scouting report on himself.
"So wide receivers have to keep their head on a swivel because they know if they don't look out for me, they're going to pay for it. That's just how I approach the game. Let those offensive players be intimidated and know they have to keep their head on a swivel when they see me."
"I think their strengths are very similar," Fitzgerald says when asked about the competition between the one and the other. "I think they both enjoy physical play. Both athletic guys. Collin's had a great off-season. He's healthy, feeling great. Drew's added some strength, some size. I think both guys run very well. I think a strength, from Collin's standpoint, might be a little bit more experience. He's played a little bit more. And I think one of Drew's strengths is he's pretty fearless. So I think both guys bring a great package."
Competition abounds as the 'Cats prepare for their Aug. 31 season opener at Cal. It is there on the offensive line and among the receivers. It is there on the defensive line and at safety. But it is most starkly there at linebacker, where the mirror images that are the one and the other daily do battle.
Both, quite clearly, are avid competitors, which mean this surely could be a combustible situation. But, says Ellis, "Me and Drew are really good friends. Off the field, we hang out together. We're always joking around and stuff. On the field, we both know we're going for the starting job and today you could see we're making each other better by doing that. I'm pushing him, he's pushing me. At the end of camp, whoever's made the most plays and is most ready to play at that time is going to play. But I can see us both being out on the field as well because we're both going to be making plays out there. He's a great player and he likes to hit too. He really hits. It'll be fun."
"Of course my goal is to start, to win the starting position," says Smith. "But you're still teammates out there at the end of the day. So you still want to hug each other. So if he's in the game, I still want him to do the best and compete. So I'm not having any hard feelings toward him. We both want to see each other do well. Yeah. We're both competitors. We both want the starting job. If that doesn't happen, one of us is going to be unsatisfied. But we're going to embrace our role."
Here is one of Pat Fitzgerald's pet adages. "Competition makes good players great and great players special."
"I definitely agree with that," the one, Collin Ellis, will say when asked about that. "A perfect example is today. Yesterday we both played pretty average. But today we both went after it and were pushing each other. He'd make a play, I'd make a play. It's fun. Our goal is to win a Big Ten championship and go to the Rose Bowl. So we're pushing each other so we can put the best person on the field to do that."
"I really do believe that," echoes the other, Drew Smith. "Because if you get complacent, you slack. And if there's somebody fighting for your position, that forces you to bring it every day and to work on something. Like one practice I know I need to work on this, I need to work on that. In every aspect, whether it's film, eating right, taking care of your body, lifting, practice, everything, you know you have to compete because there's somebody working just as hard as you who wants your position.
"So it keeps you motivated. It keeps you level headed."
After two days of practice in helmets and jerseys, Northwestern continues training camp Wednesday and adds shoulder pads to the equation for the first time. Northwestern's first full-pads practice is slated for Friday (Aug. 9) before the Wildcats depart for Camp Kenosha on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 10.
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