Returning starters (career starts): Paddy Fisher (12), Nate Hall (24)
Key Losses: Brett Walsh, Warren Long
Other Returners: Chee Anyawu (R-Fr.), Blake Gallagher (So.), Peter McIntyre (R-Fr.), Jango Glackin (So.), Nathan Fox (Jr.)
Newcomers: Khalid Jones II (Early-enrollee), Grayson Mann
Other than the defensive line, linebacker is Northwestern’s most star-laden position group. Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall are studs, and one will probably be relied on to help captain the defense next season. If the two of them man the middle as well as they did in 2017, and perhaps do an even-finer job of it given personal improvement and a greater comfortability with college football, Northwestern will have more than a puncher’s chance in its abundance of big-time games next season. Remember, Fisher is only entering his sophomore season.
If Northwestern is going to knock off Shea Patterson and Michigan on what will be an electric Saturday atmosphere in Evanston with classes resuming that Thursday, Hall will need to be great against the former Ole Miss Rebel and five-star signal caller. Against Wisconsin a month later, Fisher will bear lots of the Jonathan Taylor responsibility. Fisher’s ability to neutralize the consensus First Team All-Big Ten running back could have an impact on not just the winner of the game, but on who wins the Big Ten West.
Other than Hall and Fisher, there are some question marks. I imagine Nathan Fox and Blake Gallagher will compete for the third linebacker spot. Khalid Jones might be thrown into the fire as well, if he’s healthy. Jango Glackin could also earn reps. With the departure of Warren Long, it is unclear if the Wildcats will utilize a rush-first linebacker next year.
As there is with most multiple-person position groups from year-to-year, there are some unknowns right now in July. But with Fisher and Hall still donning purple and white behind a daunting defensive line, the Wildcats front seven should be among the Big Ten’s best.
The 2017 Freshman All-American and All-Big Ten teamer is a rising star. The country saw that firsthand in his 18-tackle game in an otherwise embarrassing performance against Duke last season. He is my key player because it’s imperative he continues his stellar play this fall. Most of the behemoth sized gap Tyler Lancaster left when he graduated will be Jordan Thompson’s responsibility, but Fisher will also bear some of the responsibility.
If Fisher becomes a first or second All-Big Ten type performer, Northwestern’s front seven will thrive. It will be one of the Big Ten’s best. If he falters, or fails to improve, Northwestern’s defense will fail to improve with him.
If he is great in 2018, I believe Northwestern has a shot to improve upon 2017’s successes. If he doesn’t get better, I don’t think the Wildcats win double digit games, and more importantly, the program’s current forward momentum will temporarily dissipate. All the excitement that comes with a new $260 million practice facility and ensuing commitment from a five-star quarterback will dissolve into confusion if the Wildcats can’t compete at home against storied and nationally-adored opponents like Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin — Fisher will be a major part of those matchups.
Check out our feature on Fisher here.
Who will be the third linebacker?
The ‘Cats need a third linebacker next to Fisher and Hall. He doesn’t need to be great, or given Fisher and Hall’s talent. He just needs to be serviceable. If Blake Gallagher, Nathan Fox, Khalid Jones can do that, no one will notice or comment. If a third linebacker breaks out next year, like Fisher did last year, then people will notice, and more importantly, Northwestern might challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title.
If it’s a young guy that steps in as that third linebacker, tutelage from Hall and Fisher would help shape the next great Northwestern linebacker and alleviate some of the expected 2019 drop-off at the position.