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Roundtable: What is Northwestern football’s best position group?

Half of us say it’s Paddy’s group.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

With our position group previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments regarding the roster as a whole. Here, our writers debate which unit of the team will be able to find the most success next season. Let us know which group you have the highest expectations for in the comments below.

Eli Karp: Defensive Backs

Linebacker brings back the most experience of any position group, but the secondary doesn’t lag far behind. Going off only 2019 isn’t a fair assessment to the group, but Northwestern has two playmaking safeties in seniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock. The two combined for 139 tackles, 11 pass breakups and seven turnovers in 2019, and that was with Whillock appearing in 10 games, logging significant minutes in the latter half of the season. The starting cornerbacks are half-decided. Greg Newsome II has the chance to become a true lockdown defender as a junior, while we don’t know who will accompany him. It could be Cam Ruiz, AJ Hampton or a newer name. Despite the inconsistency of the first two, they’ve seen enough action and one would hope they can progress from last year. NU fans should feel confident in those anchoring the back of the unit.

Lia Assimakopoulos: Offensive Line

While linebacker may be the easy answer here, I want to make a claim for another group that deserves much more recognition than it has received. The offensive line faced significant adversity last season including switching their right tackle to left tackle and seeing their lone senior starter play just his second full season at his position. However, the group held its own throughout the year and was dominant during the final month of the season. Looking ahead to 2020, while losing Jared Thomas is certainly a blow, the group returns the bulk of its talent, including Rashawn Slater, a preseason All-American and projected early pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Not to mention, the O-Line welcomes of the best recruiting classes in Northwestern history. Maybe calling them the best position group is a bit generous, but they are certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Noah Coffman: Defensive Backs

I understand the urge that has prompted my compatriots to select linebacker as the answer here. But with significant questions about the evolution of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher in their roles after last year’s relatively mediocre showing, I see more promise in the group behind them. When healthy, Greg Newsome II has shown All-Big Ten-level ability, and JR Pace and Travis Whillock, despite rough moments, are solid options, especially in tandem for their senior seasons. Questions abound across from Newsome and in the slot, but Cam Ruiz has shown flashes, AJ Hampton has gained valuable experience, and there is plenty of promising youth waiting in the wings. The secondary certainly has a ways to go, but right now they look like the best of a rebuilding bunch.

Daniel Olinger: Linebackers

Paddy Fisher alone gets the big backers into the conversation for best position group, and the reliability of fellow seniors Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher helps them run away with the title. As a whole, the group combined for 266 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, four interceptions two forced fumbles. They helped Northwestern maintain an acceptable 26th place in total rushing yards allowed despite being placed in many disadvantageous positions. Some valid concerns arise from Fisher and Gallagher’s hefty builds (checking in at 246 and 235 pounds respectively) due to football shifting toward prioritizing speed over size, but the lack of quick twitch fluidity can be mitigated by consistently excellent scheming from Mike Hankwitz and the old-school, ground-and-pound style of the Big Ten West. Relative to their conference foes, NU’s position groups often grade out as average—good enough to suffice and help the team overachieve with a boost from coaching, but nothing more than that. As Athlon Sports detailed in their Big Ten preview, the linebackers are the lone group that can be considered an elite room for the ‘Cats.

Lucio Vainesman: Linebackers

The best player on Northwestern football for the past two seasons also happens to be the anchor of this position group, Paddy Fisher. Northwestern’s defense was filled with talent last year, regardless of what the final record states, due in large part to the play from the linebacking core. Fisher is one of those elite playmakers on the defensive side that can make tackles sideline-to-sideline and disrupt the rhythm of an offense. The linebacking core is also the most experienced of any position group as they are bringing back seniors Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin to compliment the eventual NFL draft pick. Outside of a collective matured feel for the game and chemistry playing as a unit, this position group possesses elite talent that other groups simply lack.

Jacob Brown: Running Back

I believe that Northwestern’s backfield not only has an immense amount of talent, but a large amount of depth and versatility. On the defensive side, NU’s linebacker core is phenomenal. However, I’m not convinced that some of the second string guys can really hold their own. Not only does NU have a solid 1-2 punch with Bowser and Anderson, but they each do different things. Anderson brings speed and agility, with Bowser providing more strength. The presence of the two provides NU’s offense with versatility and depth. You then add a veteran in Jesse Brown, youngsters in Evan Hull, Connor Newhouse and Marcus Cisco, and the fact that Kyric McGowan and Coco Azema both saw reps at the position last year (with success), and you get a flexible, deep running back corp.

Jackson Boolbol: Linebackers

The Northwestern linebacking core runs away with the title of best position group - and its not really close. Paddy Fisher remains the biggest name in this star-filled group; the senior is returning for his fifth and final season having passed an opportunity to throw his name into the 2020 NFL Draft. The team captain is joined by fellow seniors Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher, making this group the most experienced on the team. The three backers each finished in the top three total tackles on the season creating a massive presence on the defensive front. These three elite playmakers can rattle offenses on multiple levels: Gallagher led the team in interceptions and is a disruptive force in the backfield and, Fisher locates the ball sideline to sideline and makes necessary plays. Make no mistake: this core is the heart of the Wildcat defense.

Colin Kruse: Linebackers

Paddy Fisher, Chris Bergin, and Blake Gallagher lead the line for the ‘Cats going into the 2020 season. As everyone else has previously mentioned, this corps statically amassed a ton of tackles and production on the defensive side of the ball, and their experience and consistency will also be huge in a year which should see a ton of transition among other position groups. Fisher is probably an NFL Draft pick at this point, while his fellow seniors Bergin and Gallagher are both phenomenal of keeping Big Ten offenses in check. In terms of leadership and experience, this group will be essential in the ‘Cats’ success in the upcoming season.

Claire Kuwana: Defensive Line

Again, I understand why (almost) everyone else has picked Fisher and co., but I want to call attention to the defensive line. The majority of the unit is returning, and though it will suffer a significant loss with Joe Gaziano gone, position coach Marty Long has long since proved he can keep the group consistent. With both Samdup Miller and Earnest Brown healthy, along with younger talent like Adetomiwa Adebawore, the line has some serious potential.

Mac Stone: Linebackers

Everyone has already given their reasoning for the linebackers, so I’ll keep this short, as mine is the same. Paddy Fisher is arguably the best football player on this team. Pairing that talent with Bergin and Gallagher? Oh my. As Colin pointed out, leadership and experience are commonalities within the linebacking corps, which gives me reason to believe they’re the main reason NU will have a top 25 defense this year.