There’s something strange about watching Chi Chi Ariguzo sit on an underneath zone. Normally flying from sideline to sideline, the rising junior has garnered a reputation as one of Northwestern’s top run defenders. Yet in the Wildcats’ fourth spring practice session, he sits and waits.
Trevor Siemian makes his read. Ariguzo makes his move.
Jumping a route over the middle, he breaks from his zone and snags an impressive interception, eliciting cheers from the entire defense before the whistle blows for another rep. It all happens in the blink of an eye, serving as a vibrant reminder that Ariguzo hasn’t lost a step since his big sophomore season.
Recording double-digit tackles in four games and a pick in Northwestern’s Gator Bowl win, Ariguzo took strides toward becoming a balanced run stuffer and pass defender in 2012. Now, with standout linebacker David Nwabuisi graduating in June and senior Damien Proby currently injured, Ariguzo adds another role to juggle: leader.
“You always strive to do more,” Ariguzo said. “I’m just working hard, trying to learn.”
Despite practicing with an inexperienced unit, that learning curve has been smaller than expected. The rotating linebacking corps has looked decidedly sharper in run defense with every spring session. Running back Venric Mark struggled to reach the second level Thursday, while Ariguzo and company sniffed out the screen game and run-option all morning.
“The people behind [Nwabuisi and Proby] know what they are doing,” Ariguzo said. “Now we’re looking to be more gap sound. Everyone’s been running and letting loose.”
Still, even as Proby readies his return to the field this summer, Ariguzo faces mammoth expectations.
“With Chi Chi, the sky’s the limit,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He reminds me of a faster [former Wildcat linebacker Nick] Roach; he came out of the womb in a football position.”
Going on to compliment his natural speed and instincts as a playmaker, Fitzgerald knows that having Ariguzo realize his full potential opens up for greater defensive flexibility. But it’s inconsistency that has plagued the linebacker for much of his Northwestern career.
Ariguzo went more than two months without a sack last season, and seemingly vanished in the Wildcats’ two biggest games of the year, notching just three tackles against both Nebraska and Michigan. Without Nwabuisi to pick up the slack, Northwestern’s defense can’t afford any of those lapses in 2013.
But as the spring has shown thus far, individual performance is just one way to measure Ariguzo’s impact. Speed and strength are key, but ultimately, it’s Ariguzo’s hustle mentality that gives the defense its most formidable look.
No matter where the ball is in every practice rep, it’s a safe bet that Ariguzo is somewhere close by.
“He’s got the garbage man mentality,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a chance to have a really special player.”