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2021 Northwestern football positional previews: Linebackers

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The Irish Law Firm is hiring.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning starters: Chris Bergin (Grad Student)

Key losses: Paddy Fisher (Carolina Panthers), Blake Gallagher (Baltimore Ravens), Erik Mueller (Graduated)

Returners: Troy Hudetz (Grad Student), Peter McIntyre (Sr.), Khalid Jones (Jr.), Grayson Mann (Jr.), Jaylen Rivers (Jr.), Bryce Gallagher (R-So.), Michael Jansey Jr. (R-So.), Cullen Coleman (So.), Xander Mueller (So.), Owen Bergin (So.), Greyson Metz (So.),

Newcomers: Mac Uihlein (Fr.)

During the 2020 season, the heart and soul of Northwestern’s team was the senior linebacking trio of Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. “The Irish Law Firm,” as they were dubbed by many, accumulated 248 total tackles and 18 TFL in 2020, and provided consistent leadership during a season full of uncertainty. They were perfect representations of what Northwestern football is all about. Fisher and Gallagher were both three-star recruits out of high school and Bergin stepped into Evanston as a preferred walk-on. The three-headed tackling machine became students of the game and ended up as some of the most productive linebackers in the Big Ten.

While the run for the three brought success, there was always a question as to what would be next. Bergin, Fisher and Gallagher all were seniors in 2020 and there was not a lot of experience behind them. Once the season concluded, Fisher and Gallagher decided to close the collegiate chapters of their playing careers and have now moved on to the NFL, leaving Bergin, who chose to return for another year as a graduate student, as the lone returner to one of the best positional units in Northwestern history.

Outside of Bergin, Northwestern’s linebackers have a combined 30 career total tackles, and only senior Peter McIntyre has recored more than 10 entering this season. Even with so many question marks, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. have always been able to find a good solution at the position he once played, and the group itself is filled with potential starters just waiting to emerge for the ‘Cats and help anchor the typically vaunted NU defense.

Key Player:

Chris Bergin

If Northwestern is in need of a player to lead an inexperienced bunch, Bergin is the perfect candidate. He was a walk-on player, devoted himself to improvement and and eventually earned his way into the starting lineup and succeeded. Additionally, Bergin is versatile as a defender. Not only is he a sure tackler, but he is able to effectively drop into coverage and has decent quickness to cover tight ends and running backs. With this positional flexibility, it opens up opportunities for inexperienced defenders to come into their own and learn their role while Bergin can act as the unit’s swiss army knife.

Bergin, standing at a mere 5-foot-11, plays with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to leave everything he has on the field. That mentality has potential to inspire the other linebackers stepping into the lineup and could not only be a factor for team success, but also earn Bergin some All-Big Ten team consideration during his final season in Evanston.

Big Question:

Who will be lining up next to Bergin?

Fisher and Gallagher acted as staples in the Wildcats’ front seven for over three years. It is always a difficult task for a program to move on from a cornerstone player, but to lose two who line up right next to one another is even harder. Northwestern will be forced to rely upon a combination of fresh faces in order to find potential suitors for the starting job.

The clearest choice to take one of the starting spots is McIntyre. He is the second leading returning tackler with seven total tackles in 2020, and brings leadership in his seniority. McIntyre should occupy one of the outside linebacker positions and is expected to bring a speed that can add a more consistent ability to get to the quarterback. The knock on Fisher and Gallagher was that they did not possess a level of quickness that is seen in McIntyre.

There will likely be a competition and/or rotation between Bryce Gallagher and Khalid Jones for the final starting linebacker spot. Both have all the opportunity in the world to prove that they deserve the third and final spot, but are overall unknown talents. Bryce Gallagher can be described as a slightly more athletic version of his brother, Blake. He came up with eight sacks and four interceptions in nine games his senior year of high school. Bryce’s display of speed and versatility in being able to get after the quarterback or drop into coverage shows a similar play style to Bergin that could fare nicely for Northwestern. He has six total career tackles for the ‘Cats.

Jones projects to be more similar to what Fisher and Blake Gallagher were during their time in Evanston. He is a tackling machine who was rated as a four-star prospect from ESPN coming out of high school due to his 11-tackle junior season. Entering his junior season here at Northwestern, he has a total of three career tackles.

A name that could also emerge and be a star is first-year Mac Uihlein. Uihlein comes in as a four-star prospect and displays explosiveness that allows him to get into the backfield with ease. With defensive lineman Eku Leota transferring to Auburn during the offseason, Northwestern lost a lot of their ability to disrupt the pocket. Though Uihlein is the youngest and most inexperienced of the group, there is a chance he could be the answer to some of these problems and emerge as a star for Northwestern’s most decorated position group.

Depth Chart:

2021 Linebackers Depth Chart