With Northwestern’s disastrous 2021 season coming to a close this past Saturday, we’ll examine each position group in a year that Wildcat fans, players and coaches would like to forget. First up: the linebackers.
Overall Grade: B-
In recent seasons, Northwestern’s linebacking room has been a linchpin of its powerhouse teams. Names such as Anthony Walker, Jr., Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher elicit fond memories of hard-nosed, Big Ten-caliber LBs that stonewall opponents and wreak havoc on quarterbacks.
In 2021, the Wildcats experienced a changing of the guard at linebacker, with Bergin as the lone returning member of the Irish Law Firm and one of the few veterans in the group.
Bergin helped to carry his freight, but this unit was definitely a disappointment. There were plenty of poorly handled assignments in coverage and in the run game, as well as subpar tackling and lacking pursuit, and all in all it did no favors for Jim O’Neil’s defense.
Further, it doesn’t help that NU faithful saw few fresh faces in 2021. Aside from Bryce Gallagher emerging as a burgeoning stud for NU, the vast majority of Northwestern’s underclassmen linebackers did not play — and if they did, it was during blowouts (which actually happened a decent amount) — leaving more questions than answers with next season on the horizon.
Chris Bergin: B+
Stats: 141 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception
Without Fisher and Gallagher, expectations were high for Bergin to lead Northwestern’s defense and patrol the middle of the field. For the most part, the graduate student met such high hopes.
No. 28 was not only NU’s leading tackler, but he also paced the entire nation in solo (84) and total tackles; Bergin posted 15 or more tackles in three games, one shy of Tim McGarigle’s program record of four in a single season. Such gaudy numbers earned the Michigan native a spot on the media’s Second Team All-Big Ten and the coaches’ Third Team. The captain concludes his Northwestern career with 368 total tackles, good for the eight-highest mark in program history.
Aside from tackles, though, Bergin wasn’t necessarily a difference-maker. Sure, he amassed two takeaways, but he often struggled to shed blocks and wasn’t the fastest when moving laterally between the boundaries.
Nonetheless, Bergin still put forth quite a solid season and finished off an incredible career considering he came to Evanston as a walk-on all those years ago.
Bryce Gallagher: A-
Stats: 89 total tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack
Even though he no longer was playing alongside his older brother, Blake, the younger Gallagher was a key contributor to Northwestern’s linebacking corps.
The sophomore thumper was second on the team in tackles and third in tackles for loss. and the fact that Gallagher wasn’t even an outright starter until the Wildcats’ duel with Minnesota on October 30 makes these numbers even more impressive. Additionally, Gallagher consistently made key stops, halting ball carriers and regularly bringing them down behind the line of scrimmage.
Without Bergin next season, Gallagher is the presumed favorite to emerge as the primary tackle machine for Northwestern’s defense, as he enters 2022 as the most proven linebacker on the squad.
Peter McIntyre: C-
Stats: 68 total tackles, four tackles for loss
In 2021, McIntyre earned the opportunity to start after sitting behind Fisher and the elder Gallagher. Despite such a nod, the senior often looked shaky when on the field.
McIntyre’s struggles were apparent early, as he struggled to fill gaps in the run game in the first game of the season vs. Michigan State — a pattern that presented itself throughout the entirety of the year. Moreover, the linebacker frequently missed tackles and was not particularly nimble in coverage.
Xander Mueller: Incomplete
Stats: 19 total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery
In his sophomore season, Mueller saw action in 11 of Northwestern’s 12 games, but his snaps were very limited, as he was listed behind McIntyre at Will linebacker for the entire season.
When he did play, Mueller was fairly impactful, but it remains to be seen how he will perform in a greater capacity, meaning we’ll have to wait till 2022 for more insight on the Wheaton native.
Troy Hudetz: Incomplete
Stats: 14 total tackles, one interception
This season, Hudetz played in all 12 games, but was relegated to the backup Mike spot on the Wildcats’ depth chart for much of the year, never seeing the field until games were largely out of reach. It should be noted, though, that Hudetz did take Khalid Jones’ spot on the two-deep from late October-onward.
His career in purple and white complete, the graduate student ends his NU tenure having seen action in 34 games. Hudetz truly made the most of his final snaps in Champaign, as he snagged an interception late in the third quarter against the Illini.
Mac Uihlein: Incomplete
As one of the most highly-touted recruits in Northwestern history, Wildcat fans were hoping to see Uihlein from the get-go in his freshman season. In classic Pat Fitzgerald form, that was not the case. The Lake Forest native played in just two contests and did not compile any stats. It would surprise few if Uihlein decided to count 2021 as a redshirt year.
In 2022 and past Fitzgerald’s Freshman Façade, the former four-star prospect is poised to break onto the scene and should have a clear lane to start alongside Gallagher at linebacker.
Khalid Jones: Incomplete
Stats: 4 total tackles
Some could view Jones as worthy of receiving a low grade, as he was effectively benched in favor of Bryce Gallagher. However, I think that would be a bit rash, as Jones hardly played this season, which is emblematic of the junior’s career, having tallied snaps in only eight collegiate matchups.
Assuming the junior ‘backer elects to remain in Evanston for his senior season, Jones will find himself competing for starting time alongside Mueller, Uihlein and others.
Jaylen Rivers: Incomplete
Stats: One total tackle
In four years in Evanston, Rivers was on the field for 15 games, including showdowns with the Ohio Bobcats and Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2021. However, all signs point to him not being with the Wildcats next season, as he entered the transfer portal earlier this week.
Michael Jansey, Jr.: Incomplete
Stats: One total tackle
After redshirting the 2020 season, Jansey played in NU’s inaugural three games this season but did not see time for the remainder of the year. However, the 6-foot-2 soon-to-be junior is certainly a name to monitor for Fitzgerald’s defense in 2022.
Greyson Metz: Incomplete
Stats: Three total tackles
Similar to Mueller and Hudetz, Metz logged snaps in all but one of the Wildcats’ games in 2021, yet such playing time was in a backup role.
With the Wildcats down 33 points, the sophomore was among a contingent of linebackers to take the field against Illinois and perform well — a possible building block as he looks to separate from numerous inexperienced young linebackers moving forward.
Grayson Mann: Incomplete
As a junior, Mann took part in four games. The LB has just three total tackles in his four-year career and would have to make waves in the offseason to vie for a starting role.
Owen Bergin: Incomplete
The younger brother of Chris, Owen Bergin has yet to record any stats in his Northwestern career, but he did play against Michigan on October 23. At 5-foot-10, Bergin is undersized for a linebacker, but if he’s able to follow in Chris’ footsteps, then his frame certainly would not be a barrier to success.
Cullen Coleman: Incomplete
As a freshman last campaign, Coleman saw action in three games, including the Citrus Bowl in early January. Flash forward to the 2021 season, and the sophomore would go on to play in the same number of matchups — most recently, against the Purdue Boilermakers at Wrigley Field — without posting any numbers.