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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the linebackers

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Another strong campaign for the linebackers.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the nine-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. Up now: the linebackers.

Overall grade: A

Linebacker was a strength for Northwestern this season. Paddy Fisher followed up a breakout freshman season with a stellar sophomore campaign, Nate Hall made key plays despite battling injury and Blake Gallagher emerged as a reliable player (and then some) by leading the team — and the conference — in tackles. And, when Hall missed time due to injury, Chris Bergin also filled in well in big moments.

The linebacking group helped Northwestern to the No. 18 rush defense in the country per S&P+, and contributed big plays throughout the season.

Player grades

Paddy Fisher: A

Stats: 116 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, 12 run stuffs, five forced fumbles, one interception

Fisher got off to slow start to the season, but ultimately rebounded to turn in a great season, earning first team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and second team from the media. His numbers were down from his freshman season in several areas, including tackles for loss and run stuffs, but he was the same hard-hitter and playmaker he was a redshirt freshman. His five forced fumbles were tops on the team (nobody else had more than three), and many of those fumbles came in big games. Time after time, Fisher made important stops in the running game, and showed flashes of good pass coverage. After a strong season as a sophomore captain, Fisher will lead Northwestern’s defense once again in 2019.

Blake Gallagher: A

Stats: 127 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 12 run stuffs, one interception

Gallagher may have been Northwestern’s biggest breakout player this season. In his first year as a starter, Gallagher earned third team All-Big Ten honors from the media and honorable mention from the coaches. The conference leader in tackles was a bruiser in the running game, and, despite not being as natural in the passing game, did a nice job overall. Gallagher appears to be Northwestern’s next great linebacker.

Nate Hall: B+

Stats: 51.5 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 run stuffs, three interceptions

Hall earned All-Big Ten honorable mention as a senior, but missed four games due to injury, including the bowl game for the second straight season. He was strong in pass coverage, and, despite not being as explosive because of injuries, was solid in his final season in Evanston.

Chris Bergin: B

Stats: 51 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, nine run stuffs

Bergin’s performance at Michigan State was one of the stories of the season. Filling in for Nate Hall, Bergin flew around the field in a stadium he grew up going to games in, and he found a way to contribute throughout the season as a reserve. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be the starter next season, as there are some freshmen who will compete for playing time at the third linebacking spot.

Outlook

Fisher and Gallagher are locked in as starters, and they’ll be one of the more formidable linebacking duos in the conference. The third spot is more up for grabs. Guys like Jaylen Rivers, Grayson Mann, Khalid Jones and early-enrollee Michael Jansey Jr. should figure in somewhere, but it’s too early to tell if any of those three will separate themselves. Blake Gallagher’s younger brother Bryce also arrives this summer. Ideally, Bergin is probably the fourth linebacker, but he proved he can handle a starting role this past season.