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2019 Northwestern Football Position Previews: Linebackers

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Nate Hall’s replacement on the strong side of the defense is the biggest question this unit faces heading into the season.

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

Overview:

Returning starters: Paddy Fisher (Jr.), Blake Gallagher (Jr.)

Key losses: Nate Hall

Returners: Chris Bergin (Jr.), Jaylen Rivers (R-Fy.), Grayson Mann (R-Fy.), Erik Mueller (Jr.), Peter McIntyre (So.), Khalid Jones (R-FY.), Troy Hudetz (Jr.)

Newcomers: Bryce Gallagher (Fy.), Michael Jansey Jr. (Fy.)

Northwestern’s linebackers were one of team’s greatest strengths last season, and that shouldn’t change in 2019.

With Nate Hall the only major loss, the Wildcats are returning two starters and key playmakers. While Hall is a big loss from both a skill and leadership standpoint, he battled injury for most of last season, and the defense rarely missed a step in his absence as backups proved their ability to step up.

Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher hold most of the attention as the two returning starters. In 2018, the two combined for 243 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, 24 run stuffs, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. Ultimately, they were the backbone of the linebacker group last year and will be tasked with doing the same this season. When Hall was injured last year, Chris Bergin filled in for the most part and has the most prior experience of any other linebacker on the 2019 roster.

Key Players:

Paddy Fisher

Last season, Fisher continued to prove why he is the face of Northwestern’s defense, earning All-Big Ten Honors with 116 tackles, one sack, five forced fumbles and an interception. Heading into 2019, the rising junior has gained preseason First Team All-American honors by some analysts.

The returning captain will be expected to carry much of the defense’s weight on his shoulder. Time and time again, he has come up game-changing plays, and the defense will continue to look to him as their leader in 2019. As one of the most experienced members of this defense, Fisher will have to work with the newbies and the young returners to get this unit where it needs to be in 2019. He won’t have veterans Jared McGee behind him and Jordan Thompson in front of him like he has the past two years.

Khalid Jones II

Jones is a guy to keep an eye coming as he enters his second season in Evanston after redshirting last year. The South Carolina native was the Wildcats’ top linebacking recruit in the 2018 class and is a bigger body than most of the young members of the NU linebacking corps at 228 pounds.

It’s doubtful that Jones will be thrust into the defense as a starter right away given he only saw action in one game last season, but with Hall gone, he should be experimented with as Mike Hankwitz searches for a third body to file in alongside Fisher and Gallagher in the middle of the defense.

Big Questions:

Who will fill the third starting spot?

Chris Bergin is the first name that comes to mind as he filled in when Hall chose to sit out the Holiday Bowl, but as we have seen in Northwestern past, sometimes the breakout stars are the least likely ones. While Bergin might be the favored option in August given his prior experience, there are a number of other names (like Jones) to look out for as the third starting linebacker spot remains up in the air.

In all honesty, any number of players could take the third linebacking position that is still very much up for grabs. Jaylen Rivers and Grayson Mann are two other former redshirts to look out for next season as a handful of young backers will battle for time.

On top of those returners, there’s no reason to count out the newcomers, Michael Jansey Jr. and Bryce Gallagher, as guys who can compete for time if they impress this summer. That being said, at least one of the two will likely redshirt, and Jansey might be a step ahead of the freshman Gallagher given he early enrolled for spring practice.

What will Blake Gallagher’s role be in 2019?

Although Paddy Fisher may receive the First Team All-American hype, Gallagher deserves a ton of credit for Northwestern’s outstanding run defense last season. The Massachusetts man led the conference in total tackles, including posting 10+ tackles in six separate games throughout the 2018 season. After a relatively quiet freshman season, Gallagher seemed to turn a corner last year in terms of his production and sheer value to this Wildcat defense.

Gallagher will likely remain the team’s weak side backer given how strong and comfortable he looked in that slot throughout last season, but with Hall gone and the strong side spot in question, the junior has the chance to take even more responsibility in 2019. Fisher will need another linebacking companion to aid him in supporting what could be a relatively inexperienced NU defensive line, and Gallagher will have to be that guy. Last season showed us how crucial a player he is to Northwestern’s run-stopping identity, and now it’s only left to see how the junior builds on what proved to be a groundbreaking year in 2018.

Depth Chart:

Linebackers

SAM MIKE WILL
SAM MIKE WILL
Chris Bergin Paddy Fisher Blake Gallagher
Jaylen Rivers Khalid Jones Michael Jansey