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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Linebacker

There are some key returnees on the unit, but big questions loom.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2017 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

Next in the series is linebacker, a unit that faces big questions now that Anthony Walker Jr. is gone.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Nate Hall (12), Brett Walsh (5)

Other returners: Paddy Fisher, Nathan Fox, Warren Long (previously a running back), Jango Glackin

Incoming freshman: Chee Anyanwu, Erik Mueller, Peter McIntyre, Blake Gallagher

Nate Hall is the only truly experienced player in this position group, though Brett Walsh got valuable experience at the end of last season. The middle linebacker position is one of the team’s biggest question marks, making Paddy Fisher and Nathan Fox — the two players competing for the MIKE spot — two important players heading into the 2017 season. Warren Long, who previously played running back, is the wild card of the unit. An injury in this unit could prove costly given the lack of experience for most of its players.

Key Player

Nate Hall

When healthy, Hall has been a playmaker in and around the backfield, using his speed to get north and south and pursue the ball. He’s the most battle-tested of any linebacker on the team, and will need to stay on the field and make plays next season if the defense is to have success. With Walker gone, Northwestern loses a lot of splash plays, but Hall seems like a candidate to make up for at least some of them. He hasn’t had a ton of success in forcing turnovers in his career so far, but that seems poised to change next season because of how often he projects to be on the field. An improvement from Hall is his junior season could make the Wildcats’ defense significantly more dynamic.

Big Question

Who replaces the Franchise, and how good will he be?

This is probably the biggest position battle on the team. Fox is the more experienced player, having played in all 13 games last season, but Fisher had a good spring by all accounts.

Both players should see playing time next season, but whoever gets the majority of snaps in the middle will play a large role in the defense’s overall success next season. The middle linebacker needs to relay calls from the sideline to the rest of the defense, so there’s a leadership and mental aspect that will be asked of the MIKE in addition to filling gaps in the running game and covering intermediate routes in the middle of the field. This position is asked to do a lot, and it’s going to be a young player who will take on those duties.

If one, or both, of Fisher and Fox takes the position by the horns and breaks out next season, Northwestern will have its defensive general for seasons to come. If neither can succeed, then Pat Fitzgerald will have a major hole in the heart of his defense.

As of now, we don’t know who we’re going to get and what we’re going to get from arguably the most important non-quarterback position on the team, so that will be a storyline to follow as preseason and the early parts of the regular season unfolds.

Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
SAM Nate Hall (Jr.) Jango Glackin (R-Fr.) Peter McIntyre (Fr.)
MIKE Paddy Fisher(R-Fr.)/Nathan Fox (So.) Paddy Fisher(R-Fr.)/Nathan Fox(So.) Blake Gallagher (Fr.)
WIL Brett Walsh (Sr.) Warren Long (Sr.) Chee Anyanwu (Fr.)

A rotation of Hall, Fisher, Fox, Walsh will take most of the reps, though Long and Glackin should play too. It’s also possible that one of the true freshman doesn’t take a redshirt season, especially if one of the six returners gets injured during camp or early in the season.