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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Linebackers

After a mediocre season, the talented, veteran group has a chance to anchor what could be an efficient defense.

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

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer and time to look ahead to the fall. Despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for a fall 2020 season. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. We’ve moved to the defensive side of the ball, and now to the heart of the unit, the linebackers.


Returning Starters: Paddy Fisher (Sr.), Blake Gallagher (Sr.), Chris Bergin (Sr.)

Key losses: None

Returners: Erik Mueller (Sr.), Peter McIntyre (Jr.), Grayson Mann (So.), Troy Hudetz (Sr.), Jaylen Rivers (So.), Khalid Jones (So.), Bryce Gallagher (R-Fy.), Michael Jansey, Jr. (R-Fy.)

Newcomers: Xander Mueller, Cullen Coleman

It should be unsurprising that the foundation of a Pat Fitzgerald-coached defense is the linebacking corps. The leader of the group is captain Paddy Fisher, potentially the best known player on Northwestern’s roster. After a stellar first two seasons that featured 113 and 116 tackles, respectively, as well as four fumbles forced each year, Fisher had an uninspiring 2019 by his standards. He still logged four passes defended and six tackles for loss, but he made just 89 takedowns as NU’s defense took a step back in general.

Yet for all of Fisher’s accolades and NFL aspirations, he trails fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher in tackling. Gallagher led the Big Ten in 2018 with 127 total tackles, and he edged Fisher with 91 last year. He’s a tackling machine; he might not have Fisher’s size, but he sniffs out plays very well. Last year he struggled with missed tackles, especially in the open field.

Chris Bergin may be one of the most under-appreciated Wildcats on the roster. The undersized workhorse complements Fisher and Gallagher well, and he was probably the most consistent of the trio in 2019.

Going into last year, fans saw the linebackers as the strongest position group, and despite the poor showing, they remain one of NU’s best. All three starters are seniors who are familiar playing alongside one another, proved themselves to be productive, and some have next-level ability.

Key Player

Paddy Fisher

Gallagher and Bergin must continue to be solid, but the defense will not succeed or reach its full potential without Fisher playing at a high level. The Katy, Texas, native knows that after a supbar junior campaign, he needs a rebound to help improve his draft stock. There’s unfinished business for the star linebacker, and he is the straw that stirs the defensive drink.

The MIKE (middle) linebacker had an uninspiring 2019 by his standards, evidenced by the numbers in the overview. He missed tackles he normally makes, and as the commander of the defense, the unit regressed as he did.

Fisher’s measurables are what gives him an edge and hype that Northwestern players don’t often receive. His run defense is impressive, while his skills in pass coverage can improve, especially if he wants to make an impression on scouts.

Big Question

Can the unit regain its impact playmaking form?

The unit gave up less than half a point per game more than it did in 2019. Of course, we knew the defense wasn’t the problem, but it underscores a point about why the Wildcats won nine games the year before — besides having a competent offense. NU forced just 14 total turnovers last year, and they rarely came at important times or ended up in points.

Despite the 2018 defense not being perfect statistically, it sure knew when to make plays. Last year’s defense did not, and the linebackers bear a responsibility for that. After NU’s 20-0 loss to Iowa, a game in which the defense didn’t play poorly — it allowed just 12 first downs and 302 total yards, but forced no turnovers — Fitz said the coaching staff charted 16 strip opportunities, but the effort level wasn’t high enough. On creating turnovers, he said “usually when it rains it pours there, and right now we’re in the Sahara Desert.”

For defensive success in 2020, there’s got to be at least some isolated thunderstorms.

Depth Chart

Northwestern Linebackers 2020

Blake Gallagher Paddy Fisher Chris Bergin
Peter McIntyre Erik Mueller Jaylen Rivers