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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the linebackers

Led by breakout star Paddy Fisher, this unit was strong all season.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. We’re almost done with the offense (just the O-line left), but let’s get into the other side of the ball for a second, starting with the LBs.

Thanks to an incredible season from Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year Paddy Fisher and improvements from a couple of upperclassmen, linebacker was undeniably a position of strength for the Northwestern defense in 2017. That wasn’t necessarily something we expected; coming into the season, there were plenty of questions surrounding Randy Bates’ unit. Stud MLB Anthony Walker Jr. chose to forego his redshirt senior season and was taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. Plus, key reserves Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones had graduated. It was pretty much assumed that veterans Nate Hall and Brett Walsh would be the two outside backers, but there was a gaping hole in the middle. The battle for that job came down to a couple players from the Houston area: Nathan Fox and Fisher. Fox, with the extra year of experience and a slightly better recruiting profile, seemed to be the favorite. Then reports came out of practice that Fisher was impressing. In one of the spring practices we attended, Fox was out with an injury, and Fisher was making plays all over the field. Sure enough, Fisher won the job, and he didn’t waste long making Pat Fitzgerald look smart.

Playing in just his second career game, Fisher racked up 18 tackles in Northwestern’s loss to Duke. Throughout the rest of the year, he established himself as arguably the Wildcats’ best defensive player. And that’s saying something when you play with seniors like Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Tyler Lancaster. Fisher was named a freshman All-American and has a very bright future ahead of him. Oh, and Nate Hall turned into a star in his own right in his junior season, and Brett Walsh had a solid senior year. Those three dominated snaps, but true freshman Blake Gallagher saw the field and former running back Warren Long shined on special teams before stepping up in a big way in the bowl game.

Player grades

Paddy Fisher: A

Stats: 113 tackles (65 solo, 9 TFL, 0 sacks), 4 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 passes defended

That I seriously considered giving Fisher an A+ tells you all you need to know about his season. In the end, I went with a standard A because there are still some things he can improve upon, as crazy as that might sound. Fisher, who like Walker before him isn’t the quickest player ever, didn’t record a sack and didn’t make too many plays in coverage (although he wasn’t really asked to). He also was ejected from two games on targeting calls, questionable though they may have been. But all that is merely nitpicking — Fisher was a beast all season long. He was a dominant run-stopping presence, the key cog for an NU run defense that allowed only 107 yards per game on the ground. His 113 tackles were good for fourth in the conference (despite missing two halves) and made him the first Big Ten freshman to cross the century mark since Ibraheim Campbell in 2011. He played a role in numerous turnovers. The dude was really good. He was a third-team All-Big Ten honoree, but Pro Football Focus had him on their second team.

Somehow, that 18-tackle game in Durham wasn’t even his best of the season. That honor goes to a 19-tackle, 2-forced fumble masterpiece against Michigan State. I mean, check out the film. Fisher also poured in 13 tackles against Nebraska and 10 (plus his first career pick) against Illinois. I, for one, I am excited to watch No. 42 play football for the next two or three seasons.

Nate Hall: A

Stats: 79 tackles (49 solo, 11.5 non-sack TFL, 5 sacks), 1 FR, 2 INT, 8 passes defended

I’ve already talked so much about Fisher in this article, and deservedly so. But Nate Hall needs a whole lot of credit, too. The junior just couldn’t stop making plays, and his efforts in 2017 absolutely warrant an “A” grade. First of all, just look at those stats below his name. His 14 solo tackles for loss trailed only Ohio State’s Nick Bosa among Big Ten defensive players. 5 sacks! 2 picks! Hall’s impact was also very apparent from the eye test. Anyone who watched a lot of Northwestern football this year can tell you that he was a critical, critical part of the defense. While Fisher’s presence was predominantly felt in the run game, Hall was outstanding both against the run and in pass coverage. His first pick sealed the triple-OT victory over MSU:

To make things even more incredible, Hall made that catch with 30 stitches in his left hand. He had suffered a bloody cut in the second quarter and came back to make one of the biggest plays of the season. THAT’S CALLED WILDCAT TOUGHNESS. In the 39-0 win over Minnesota, Hall absolutely went off: 2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. He also had 3.5 TFLs among his 11 tackles against Maryland. Oh, and he’s back next season, too.

Brett Walsh: B-

Stats: 67 tackles (36 solo, 2.5 non-sack TFL, 1 sack), 1 FR, 1 pass defended

Walsh often got forgotten next to the prolific Fisher-Hall duo, but the senior put together a solid season. He didn’t do anything super dramatic or memorable, but he was an important piece of Northwestern’s run defense and finished fourth on the team in tackles while starting every game. A reliable tackler, Walsh had 11 (including 6 solo) against Wisconsin and 12 against Nebraska.

Looking ahead to 2018

Fisher and Hall might be the best pair of linebackers in the conference next year. They’re locks for starting roles, but the third spot is open due to Walsh’s graduation. The two main candidates would appear to be Fox, who will be a redshirt junior but only recorded 11 tackles in an injury-marred 2017, and Gallagher. The latter will be just a true sophomore but played a good amount this season (33 tackles, fourth-best among LBs) and has received praise from Fitz before. Pass coverage abilities will likely factor into that battle.

Warren Long, who had a sack and a TFL against Kentucky after Fisher was tossed, will also no longer be around in 2018, so there is room for a few younger players to see the field behind that top four. Redshirt sophomore Jango Glackin has dealt with injuries during his career but had a strong high school career at powerhouse IMG Academy. Redshirt freshmen Peter McIntyre and Chee Anyanwu will have every opportunity to earn snaps. Of the three Class of 2018 linebackers (Khalid Jones, Jaylen Rivers, and Grayson Mann), the early enrollee and highly-rated Jones is the strongest candidate to not redshirt.