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Film room: Paddy Fisher did everything in an award-winning performance against Michigan State

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Northwestern has one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. And he’s a freshman.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Linebacker Paddy Fisher has been the breakout star of this 2017 season for Northwestern. Coming off of a career day against Michigan State, Fisher is starting to get noticed nationally for his performance.

Following his 19-tackle* outing against the Spartans last Saturday, the redshirt freshman has raked in awards all week long. First, he was named the Walter Camp FBS Defensive Player of the Week. Unsurprisingly, Fisher added a similar award from the Big Ten and another national award from the FWAA. He got a 92.5 grade from Pro Football Focus.

*after Fitz said he counted 21 tackles on tape, the official total was changed from 17 to 19.

The secret is starting to get out. Fisher is really, really good at playing linebacker.

This didn’t come out of nowhere; the Katy, Texas native has been arguably Northwestern’s best defensive player all season. In just his second college game, Fisher racked up 18 total tackles against Duke. He currently has 75, which leads the Wildcats by 20 and is tied for second in the conference. He also had at least one TFL in each of Northwestern’s first four Big Ten matchups.

But against Michigan State, Fisher took his game to another level. His 14 solo tackles shattered the career-high 9 he set in Durham, and he added two forced fumbles and two quarterback hurries for good measure. Anyone who watched the game will remember that Fisher always seemed to be near the ball. Let’s take a closer look at his outing to see what makes this freshman so special.

Speed

A few weeks ago, when asked about his relative lack of recruiting hype coming out of Texas powerhouse Katy High School (he was a low-3-star recruit), Fisher mentioned a lack of speed, specifically referring to his 4.8 40-yard dash time.

“I’m a pretty slow guy,” Fisher said. “I like to think I have a little bit of game speed, a little bit of instincts, so that kinda makes up for it in a good way.”

As far as Northwestern is concerned, he is doing just fine in the speed department. When watching him play, you’d never have a clue he runs a slow 40. Like he said, Fisher has great game speed, which, when combined with his awesome instincts, enables him to fly all over the field and make plays. In this play, watch Fisher (No. 42) sprint to the sideline and get to LJ Scott for the TFL.

That quickness can also be seen when he’s making tackles in the short passing game. On this screen, Spartan wide receiver Cody White breaks away from Nate Hall, spins out of the grasp of Godwin Igwebuike, and looks like he’ll have running room up the sideline. Then, out of nowhere, Fisher comes charging in to limit the damage. How often do you see middle linebackers make this kind of hustle play?

The biggest thing missing from Fisher’s 8-game resume right now? A sack. Getting on the board in that category seems like it’ll happen any game now, though. He hurried Lewerke twice on Saturday, and definitely has the burst to bring a quarterback down. Here, Lewerke just barely throws the ball away in time.

The sacks will come, especially as he’s sent on more blitzes.

Interior run-stuffing

Every great middle linebacker has a nose for sniffing out running lanes and the ability to bring backs down for short or negative gains. Fisher, who said he loved Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis growing up, is no exception. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, he has prototypical size and is clearly a very strong guy and sound tackler. The thing that stands out most, though, is his instincts. Fisher reads plays like a veteran and virtually always fills the right gap to make plays in the run game.

Watch as Fisher moves to his left with the option play, then bursts into the hole to bring down MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke for a big third down stop.

Look at the Miller brothers, Alex and Samdup, each occupying two blockers there. Here’s Fisher plugging a lane on a standard inside run and unleashing a vicious tackle to keep Madre London from getting anywhere.

Fisher is always quick to credit the defensive line for allowing him to make plays, and that group does deserve plenty of credit. Defensive tackles Tyler Lancaster, Jordan Thompson, and Alex Miller have all played well this season, and their activity frees up the linebackers to come downhill and stuff the run.

However, even with a great front four, LBs are often going to have to evade an offensive lineman in order to make a play, and Fisher has shown the agility to do that. In this play, he patiently waits for Gerald Holmes to make a move, gets off a block, and brings the back down from behind.

Ball skills

Fisher is deceptively fast. He has great instincts. He can tackle. The last piece of the puzzle is his impact as a turnover creator. An underrated, extremely important play from Saturday’s victory was Fisher’s first quarter forced fumble that led to a turnover. Already up 7-0, the Spartans were back in the red zone and looking to double their lead when Fisher punched the ball out of White’s hands.

If he doesn’t make that remarkable, sprawling play, maybe Michigan State takes a 14-0 lead and avoids overtime entirely. Oh yeah, and literally the play before, Fisher also forced a fumble. In this one, he fends off a blocker and is able to strip the ball out as he’s making the tackle on Scott.

Northwestern obviously didn’t recover that one, so Fisher just did it again. Those two forced fumbles gave him three on the season, which ties him for most in the Big Ten. He also nearly picked Lewerke off on a pass breakup.

We’ve known this for a while now, but the Michigan State game confirmed it: Fisher is a flat-out stud. He came into this season college-ready and it has shown all fall long as he’s played dynamic, mistake-free football.

The scary thing for Big Ten offensive coordinators? He still has over three years to get better and better.