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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 2: Nate Hall

Hall is coming off of a monster season.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-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 2018. 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.

We’ve made it to No. 2 on the list: linebacker Nate Hall.

Caleb Friedman (Rank: 2): Noah and I both have Hall at number two on our lists, but we’ll come at it from different angles. I’ll leave it to Noah to explain the importance of a playmaking linebacker in a defense positionally, and I’ll talk about his recover from injury.

I think Hall’s knee surgery in the weeks ahead of the Music City Bowl was the single most underreported story from Northwestern’s offseason. It makes sense why — it happened during the dead time before the bowl game and Clayton Thorson was the bigger story. But, Hall underwent surgery for a serious knee injury too, and missed all of spring ball. He’s expected to be back healthy for the start of the season, but will he be the same player? Northwestern needs him to be. Hall was an explosive, big-play linebacker with a knack for timely plays. His interception against Michigan State might’ve been the defining play of the season (shoutout Justin Jackson’s overtime catch-and-run against Iowa and Kyle Queiro’s bowl game pick-six).

So, while Paddy Fisher may have more hype than Hall coming into the season, Hall is more important in my rankings because I have more questions about how he’ll perform this season. And, to be clear, those questions are in no way talent-related — Nate Hall’s a stud. I just wonder if he’ll fully recover, especially at a position where speed and explosiveness are paramount.

Noah Coffman (Rank: 2):

Hall’s knee poses significant questions for me as well, especially with his dependence, as an outside linebacker, on the ability to make sharp cuts (which the ACL is obviously key for). But his importance to this year’s Northwestern squad, for me, boils down more to his pure impact. With the departure of senior leaders like Tyler Lancaster, Kyle Queiro, Brett Walsh, and Godwin Igwebuike from Northwestern’s sterling defense, Hall will have to step into even more of a leadership role. That ability was displayed last year, but as one of just four projected senior defensive starters on Northwestern’s defense (Jordan Thompson and Montre Hartage, both highly ranked on this list as well, join Jared McGee as the others), Hall will have to take it to another level.

As Caleb mentioned, Hall will also have to contribute significantly on the field. He was a do-it-all guy for the Wildcats last year, registering just 0.5 less tackles than Godwin Igwebuike in addition to the team lead in TFLs (16.5), six pass breakups, and a number of huge plays. Hall’s constant presence in the backfield allows defensive linemen to not overextend themselves chasing runners, and was a huge reason why Paddy Fisher was able to consistently shoot gaps and rack up tackles. Without his consistency, Northwestern’s dominant run defense would take a significant hit. But Hall is far from one-dimensional. His numbers against the pass speak to his ability to both effectively blitz off the corner and roam the flats, again allowing Fisher to stay comfortable while opening up rushing lanes for the likes of Joe Gaziano.

For all the big names around him, Nate Hall was the rock of Northwestern’s defense in 2017. This year, the linebacker is a prime candidate for the vaunted #1 jersey, and will almost certainly be named one of the team’s captains. Massive expectations, difficult injury rehab, and the burden of leadership add up to an immense amount of pressure on the leader of Northwestern’s best unit. How he responds to it will largely determine the Wildcats’ 2018 success.