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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 2: Anthony Walker’s replacement at middle linebacker

Nathan Fox? Paddy Fisher? Someone else? We think that player is going to be important.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.

We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.

One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

Next up in the series is more of a mystery: Northwestern’s new top linebacker.

Caleb Friedman (Paddy Fisher/Nathan Fox rank: 2): Putting both Paddy Fisher and Nathan Fox in the same spot is kind of a cop-out answer, but, at this point, we just don’t know who’s going to start at middle linebacker and replace Anthony Walker Jr. Nate Hall is the team’s best linebacker, but because we more or less know what we’re going to see from him, his performance isn’t as important as Fox’s or Fisher’s. Fox has one more season of experience under his belt, so I’d lean toward picking him to start at the MIKE spot, but Fisher had a strong spring, and should see a lot of playing time even if he doesn’t start.

The middle linebacker position is integral in any defensive scheme, and it’s more involved than the other linebacker spots because it includes relaying messages from the sideline to the rest of the defense. Even on plays that don’t directly involve the MIKE backer, that player will have to get the defense into the right alignment and understand the roles of every other player on the field. Fox and Fisher will be inexperienced, so there’s some uncertainty regarding how they’ll do.

Walker wasn’t great at the beginning of last season — he was nursing a nagging injury — but he always knew what he was doing. And when wasn’t hurt, he was an all-around stud. Whoever replaces Walker doesn’t have to play up to the Franchise’s level, but they’ll need to reliable for the Northwestern defense to function well. Fisher and Fox both have great size for the position, so they should have no problem taking on blockers and attacking the line of scrimmage, but how the duo will tackle in space and drop into coverage is more of a question mark.

The way I see it, whoever starts at middle linebacker will be the most important player on the defense because of how much that player will have to do play in and play out. Against teams like Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State — all teams with potent rushing attacks — containing running backs in the middle of the field will be a major priority.

Tristan Jung (linebacker rank: NR): I’m a fairly simply football viewer. I mostly ranked players based on how much talent I believe they have. Maybe ranking “most important” based on how good a player will be makes no sense (for example, I’m pretty sure kicker Josh Scobee was the best player on a few Jaguars teams), but I just went with it. I try not to fiddle with this definition of “important”, mostly because football is so unpredictable with injuries and small sample sizes that I cannot reasonably say what is “important”.

Sure, the middle linebacker position and “captain of the defense” spot is vitally important to a football team. I just have no clue whether Fisher or Fox will be able to perform that role. If Nate Hall would move from strong side linebacker to middle linebacker, I’d consider ranking him in the top 10, but that doesn’t look like it’s happening. Thus, we have Nathan Fox and Paddy Fisher. Fitzgerald said that they can split time and it’s an “ongoing battle”.

For me, it’s just hard to rank “amorphous Anthony Walker replacement” in my top 10. Linebacker is easily the thinnest group on the roster, with Northwestern already moving Warren Long from running back to provide some depth. Despite being a competent linebacker over the years, Nate Hall as always struck me as more of a coverage specialist and not necessarily the monster defensive presence that Walker provided.

After that, Nathan Fox has 12 career tackles and Paddy Fisher is a redshirt freshman. There is really no crunch time tape for these two, and I have no idea how good they are. Hopefully, one of them turns out to be a decent Big Ten linebacker in his first year and makes this list in 2018. This, I think, is the most likely outcome. That outcome of “decent middle linebacker” couldn’t make my talent-based list, especially with what we’ve already seen from Igwebuike, Nagel, Thorson, Jackson and others. Even Joe Gaziano and Garrett Dickerson have shown us what they can do at times.

Finding Walker’s replacement will be difficult and unpredictable. It’s like trying to find the guy to replace Peyton Manning. Sometimes, you end up with relatively unknown seventh-round draft picks from Northwestern becoming the starting quarterback after one season. So...Blake Gallagher? Jango Glackin? Warren Long? Maybe not, but, well, there are always injuries.

How will Fox and Fisher fare in pass/run coverage? Who else will step up? Can they be incredible open-field tacklers like Walker? We don’t know the answers.

Maybe all these questions just prove Caleb’s point. Maybe the sheer lack of answers makes this position all the more important when the answers come. However, although I hate to be “that guy”, there are veterans on this team with critical experience and demonstrated ability that should be on my list. From my reasoning, projecting someone to break out (or create a team-altering flaw, I suppose) in June seems premature and irrational. I’m just sticking with what I know.

Also, I believe it’s totally a cop-out to pick two or three different players for one spot on a 10 most important players list. Yes, I’m directly calling out half my staff on this one. Call me old fashioned, but I still think 10=10.