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Northwestern football’s No. 7 player of 2022: LB Xander Mueller

The junior stepped into a starting role and seized it.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

As Inside NU continues to count down our top 10 Northwestern football players from 2022, we move on to No. 7 on the list: Xander Mueller. We’ll begin the new week by diving into the junior linebacker’s season.

Iggy Dowling (5):

Stats: 87 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, two-and-a half-sacks, one fumble recovery, two interceptions, two pass breakups

With Chris Bergin and Peter McIntyre both graduating after the 2021 season, Northwestern’s linebacking corps had two huge holes going into 2022. That meant Mueller, who played in 11 games the season prior, had to compete for and win his starting role leading up to the season opener against Nebraska.

Not only did the junior do that, he also started off his year with a bang. In Dublin, Mueller recorded a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter to give the ‘Cats a 31-28 win over Nebraska. His performance was good enough to earn a spot on Pro Football Focus’s Week Zero Team of the Week.

As the entire defense did, Mueller hit a rough patch during Northwestern’s nonconference schedule. It came a little later than the unit’s, though, as he recorded another interception and one-and-a-half tackles-for-loss against Southern Illinois.

However, the Wheaton native didn’t make much of an impact in the backfield against Miami Ohio’s run-heavy offense. Even though NU had the luxury of facing the RedHawks’ backup quarterback, Aveon Smith, which gave it the freedom to stack the box, the Wildcats surrendered 171 yards on the ground to Keyon Mozee, and Mueller did not record a tackle-for-loss.

He went on to unleash a forceful response the very next week, putting up a career game against Penn State on the road. Mueller took full advantage of Beaver Stadium’s sloppy conditions, as he led the ‘Cats with 14 tackles and recovered a fumble. He also deflected a pass and picked up half of a TFL, which heavily contributed to one of NU’s best defensive performances of the season. Jim O’Neil’s unit held PSU’s dynamic rushing attack to under four yards per carry in the 17-7 loss.

While Mueller had some struggles in coverage, he continued to excel as a run defender. He had another great game against Iowa, picking up his first sack of the season as well as another two-and-a-half TFLs en route to a nine-tackle game. That set the tone for an encouraging end to the season for Mueller, who punctuated his season with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and another sack against Illinois.

He finished second on the team behind Bryce Gallagher with 87 total tackles. The inside linebacker tandem could prove to be one of the better run-stopping duos in the Big Ten next season if both players can continue to improve in that regard. Since Greyson Metz should also be back in Evanston next season, Northwestern might have more continuity in its linebacking room than anywhere else on the team.

What remains to be seen, however, is how much Mueller can develop in coverage from now until next September. While his role in O'Neil's defense was more tailored toward shutting down the run, Mueller's 45.2 PFF grade as a pass defender speaks volumes about how much NU struggled to defend the middle of the field. It will be interesting to see how the new defensive coordinator chooses to deploy Mueller, but he will need to take a major leap for the defense to consistently give the 'Cats a fighting chance in 2023.

Ultimately, though, Mueller is here for a reason — he brought playmaking ability and physicality against the run to a linebacking corps that seldom flashed those traits in 2021. With another big offseason jump, he could become one of the better linebackers in the conference as a senior.