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Five big questions: No. 5: Who replaces Anthony Walker Jr.?

The Franchise’s decision to go pro leaves a hole at middle linebacker.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Pinstripe Bowl - Pitt v Northwestern Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The offseason recently is underway for Northwestern football, and though there’s well over half a year until the 2017 season opener against Nevada, it’s never too early to take a look at what next year’s team will look like. This series of questions will start with one of the major storylines heading into next season: how the Wildcats will cope with the loss of All-Conference linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., who recently declared for the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.

Northwestern’s defense lost a major leader and contributor when Anthony Walker Jr. declared for the NFL draft shortly after the team’s Pinstripe Bowl victory over Pittsburgh.

Replacing The Franchise’s production will be no easy task.

As a redshirt sophomore in 2015, he exploded onto the national scene as an first team All-Big Ten player, totaling 120 tackles and a whopping 19 tackles for loss.

With more expectations in his redshirt junior season, Walker Jr. didn’t post quite the same numbers as his sophomore year, but improved as the season progressed and he got healthier — both he and coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted he wasn’t 100 percent to start the year. By the middle of the season, the Miami native showed more glimpses of his 2015 self and make several crucial plays in Northwestern’s bowl win over Pitt — notably a goal-line stuff of Panther running back James Connor on fourth-and-goal.

Walker Jr. will definitely be missed — he has a chance to be the highest draft pick out of Northwestern in recent memory. His physicality, range and leadership as the centerpiece of a revitalized defense all contributed to his legacy as one of the best linebackers ever at a school that has historically been strong at the position.

But the cupboard isn’t completely bare in the linebacker room.

Nate Hall, who had been in the mix and started the final four games of 2015 before taking before starting most of this season, will be back, and will probably lead the linebacker group.

The redshirt sophomore showed the ability to get into the backfield and blow up running plays as was evidenced by his six tackles for loss this season, and is mobile enough to drop into coverage in the middle of the field.

Hall’s play was solid all year, and he’s athletic enough to be disruptive; he hasn’t forced a turnover yet in his career, but he should be in a better position to do so next year. He’s about the same size as Walker Jr. at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and he has the most experience of any of the returning linebackers. He’s played outside linebacker, and his speed serves him well there. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t slide inside; the size is there as is the experience.

There’s still a big unknown as to how Hall would handle making calls and checks as the MIKE linebacker (if that’s where he plays), however. It’s tough to evaluate how he would be as a leader of the defense, but he played well this season, and should grow more comfortable in the defense with another offseason under his belt. He’s one intriguing option, but in all likelihood, the junior-to-be will remain on the outside.

Another player who gained valuable experience this season, and will be a significant part of the team’s plans next season is Brett Walsh.

As a redshirt junior, Walsh played sparingly in the first half of the season, but took on a starting role after senior Jaylen Prater suffered a season-ending injury against Ohio State on October 29. Given the circumstances, Walsh played fairly well in the second half of the season, though he struggled in the run game at times, especially against bigger, more physical teams such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Walsh figures to have a starting spot in 2017, but getting stronger must be a priority for him this season. He played at 215 pounds this season, which will probably have to come up if he’s going to be an every-down player. He has good speed, though, and will continue to improve as more of a full-time player. But unless he adds significant weight, he is more well suited for the outside.

After Hall and Walsh, the candidates for the final starting linebacker spot are more inexperienced.

The two that come to mind are Nathan Fox — who will be a redshirt sophomore in 2017—and Jango Glackin—who will be a redshirt freshman in 2017.

Fox played in nine of the team’s 13 games this season, but never recorded more than two tackles in a single game. He combined with Walker Jr. to stuff Pitt at the goal line, but there just isn’t a ton of tape on Fox.

A bigger player (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), Fox will play a key role in the running game next season, similarly to what Jaylen Prater did.

He appears to be the favorite to land the final starting spot next season, because he at least has some game experience — he was listed as Anthony Walker’s primary backup all season and got some extensive time earlier in the season — but it’s remains to be seen how he’ll deal with increased snaps.

Glackin, a product of high school powerhouse IMG Academy, should see snaps too. It’s hard to expect too much from a player in his first season of game action, though, so he’ll probably contribute in a more limited role.

Redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher or true freshman Blake Gallagher could see some playing time, but it’s unlikely either will play significant snaps. The depth at the position going into 2017 is far from the sure thing it was going into 2016.

When it comes down to to it, you can’t just replace Anthony Walker Jr. He’ll be remembered as one of the program’s all-time greats, and he may be the best player in the Pat Fitzgerald era. He earned the nickname “The Franchise” for a reason.

But his absence creates an opportunity.

Younger players will have to step up and learn on the fly, which is much easier said than done.

Once upon a time it was Walker Jr. seizing his chance as a redshirt freshman with a 49-yard pick-six against Penn State in 2014 in his first start in place of Collin Ellis. Could the chance to replace him fall to another young player?

It’s certainly there for the taking again.