Pat Fitzgerald has the bar set high for his top returning defender.

Like, really high.

Anthony Walker was one of the surprise players not only in the B1G, but in the country. He earned First-Team All-B1G honors and he was named a Second-Team All-American as a sophomore.

But according to Pat Fitzgerald, Walker’s breakout season wasn’t a result of him overachieving. Rather, it was the beginning of a historic career.

“I’m not afraid to make statements, and I think he has a chance to be the best we’ve ever had — and we’ve had some pretty good ones,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t say it unless I mean it, and I really feel he’s got the potential to be that. Potential at times is a nasty word (because it implies a player has yet to accomplish anything).

“But he’s already walked the walk. Now take the next step. Now you’re going from a great player to a special player. I expect to see that from him.”

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Fitzgerald himself, as you’ll recall, is considered by many as Northwestern’s best linebacker in school history. He won the Bronco Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player twice and he was a consensus All-American.

In other words, Fitzgerald said that Walker can be even better than he was. That would be quite the accomplishment.

Walker did rack up 19.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore, which was good for second in the nation and third in Northwestern history. That’s almost more TFLs than the 20 Fitzgerald recorded in his entire career.

Still, Fitzgerald was the last Wildcat defender to be named a First-Team All-American in 1996. In order for Walker to break that 20-year drought and get to the level Fitzgerald thinks he can get to, he’ll deal with different challenges as a junior.

“He made a lot of plays last year unblocked,” Fitzgerald said. “To take that next step and go from being a Second Team All-American to a First Team All-American, he’s got to make more plays while he’s being blocked. I saw that improvement this spring. That’s something he and I talked about this off-season.

“If you want to take the next step, here’s what has to happen, and he worked his butt off at it this spring.”

If Walker can lead Northwestern to its first Rose Bowl since Fitzgerald’s playing days, those comparisons will take on a life of their own.