What’s in a name? For Northwestern’s linebackers, it is everything.
Pat Fitzgerald referred to the Wildcats’ linebackers as the “no-name linebackers” during Big Ten Media Days. NU fifth-year senior linebacker Ben Johnson is hoping this season can be a step toward making their names known.
“I think other people don’t know our names,” said Johnson. “That just comes from the past four years, our not making a name for ourselves. That’s what we can control this season. That’s what really matters.”
The NU linebackers will face a great challenge in their season-opener. Boston College averaged 128 yards per game last season, though most of that came from leading rusher Montel Harris, who will miss Saturday’s game with an injury.
The Golden Eagles’ rushing attack will provide a tough test for the Wildcat linebackers. Fitzgerald is hoping they will step up.
“They’re going to have a huge challenge,” said Fitzgerald. “Boston College is a very physical team. They’ll run the ball down your throat, great play action off of it. It’s going to be a physical, physical game. Show up with the big boy pads. If we don’t, I’ll be ticked off.”
In order to be successful against the Golden Eagles, the linebackers have a goal in mind.
“Start fast,” Johnson said. “We came out in Vanderbilt really slow the first and second quarter. Coach emphasized getting right on top of a guy right away from the start. We just need to get out there right from the start and just punch someone in the face.”
With facing a strong running team, Johnson says the game plan is simple: execute and force turnovers.
“Turnovers are the name of the game,” he said. “Defensively, we’ve been stressing getting fumbles and interceptions—mainly fumbles. We need to get the ball on the ground and get our offense back on the field.”
Johnson is looking at an increased role for Saturday’s game. He was battling with fellow senior Bryce McNaul for the starting “Will” linebacker role in camp. When Collin Ellis—likely the frontrunner at “Sam” linebacker—broke his hand, Johnson was asked to move over to Sam.
Just a few months ago, Johnson wore a walking boot while watching his teammates in spring practice. Just days before the first game, he feels better than ever.
“My ankle just got better midway through the summer,” he said. “It was a tough month or two for me to try to get ready for camp. My conditioning is the best it’s ever been. I’m in great shape right now.”
The Wildcats’ linebackers look to contain sophomore running back Andre Williams, who is expected to start for the Golden Eagles. Williams has battled an ankle injury, which may lead to more carries for Tahj Kimble and Rolandan Finch.
Even without Montel Harris on the field, Johnson and the NU linebackers are anticipating a challenge. They are ready for the challenge on Saturday and throughout the entire season.
“We’re going to produce out there,” said Johnson. “By the end of the season, people are going to know who we are.”