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2022 Northwestern Football Position Review: Linebackers

There’s a need... a need for speed

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Now that the season is over and the coaching cycle is spinning, it’s a good time to look back and review each position group. Next on the list: linebackers.

Overall Grade: B

On the defensive side of the ball, the most important position group is the linebacker core. Often referred as “the quarterback of the defense,” linebackers are usually responsible of communicating the play call and making sure the front seven is in the correct position. For Northwestern, the linebacking core left a lot of meat on the bone this year.

The ‘Cats’ front seven struggled to slow down offenses all season long. NU was 66th in total defense this season, allowing an average of 374.6 yards a game. Northwestern was also ranked 111th in the nation in rush defense, giving up 191.3 yards a game on the ground, the worst of any team in the Big Ten. How much of that is due to the D-Line allowing offensive linemen to climb to the second level and making it difficult for the linebackers to make the play is unknown.

As the Big Ten is still a run-first conference, the Wildcats’ inability to stop the run was a key factor in the firing of defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and Marty Long. NU could not get off the field, ranking 99th in third-down conversions. Struggles to wrap opponents up and tackle were also noticeable the entire year.

As Northwestern linebackers are on the more stout side, it is difficult to ask them to cover running backs and spread tight ends, who are really just bigger receivers in a spread system. The ‘Cats core will need to get quicker this offseason, increasing their ability to cover sideline to sideline; however, it is time to look back on each backer’s performance during the 2022 season.

Player Grades

Bryce Gallagher: B+

Stats: 100 total Tackles, 58 solo, 42 assisted, five tackles-for-loss, one and a half sacks, one quarterback hit, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception, one pass breakup

It was a really good season for the junior. Gallagher was a steady presence in the middle for the Wildcats. He is a fantastic downhill, run-stuffing linebacker, and led Northwestern in tackles with 100. It is hard not to love the smashmouth, neck-collar, style of football that the Massachusetts native plays, and it is a good fit against the run-first offenses in the Big Ten. Gallagher has a great understanding of where he fits in the run scheme and can plug gaps or play over the top on stretch plays.

For as good of a run-stuffing linebacker as Gallagher is, the only thing holding him back from a higher grade is his pass coverage. The junior struggled when the ball was in the air, giving up over 300 yards and allowing completions on roughly two-thirds of passes targeting him, according to PFF. His PFF coverage grade was 46.2, in the bottom five of all ‘Cats.

Gallagher’s body size and style of play is not meant to cover running backs and receivers on quick-game concepts, and it is obvious that he will need to get faster to complete his game. However, there is a reason the junior was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team, as his ability to stop the run, along with his high football IQ, made him a key player on this defense. Gallagher is an important part to the next defensive coordinator’s group, but he will need to get better at covering all 53 1/3 yards across the width of the field.

Xander Mueller: B+

Stats: 87 total Tackles, 52 solo, 35 assisted, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, two and a half sacks, one forced fumble, two interceptions, two pass breakups

The junior finished second in tackles only to his fellow linebacker Gallagher, and led the team in TFLs. Mueller, like Gallagher, is a very good inside run defender, as he also is a downhill backer looking to stick his nose in the pile. The Wheaton native is sound in gap responsibility and does a good job of fitting into the run, preventing cutback lanes. He is the prototypical Pat Fitzgerald linebacker and is exactly what would be expected in the Big Ten West.

Similar to his fellow backer, Mueller’s size and style of play do not lend themselves to covering spread offenses. The junior was also in the bottom five of the ‘Cats’ PFF coverage grade, earning a grade of 45.2. Mueller allowed completions on almost three-fourths of the times he was targeted, a clear weak point in his game. With a new defensive coordinator coming to Evanston, it will be interesting how Northwestern deals with this issue and how its two seniors change their style of play, because if they can get quicker and better in coverage, this duo has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Greyson Metz: B

Stats: 41 total Tackles, 29 solo, 12 assisted, one tackle-for-loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery

In a reversal from the last two linebackers, Metz is not as efficient as a run-stuffing linebacker. The junior does not do as good a job getting downhill quickly and finding his fit in the scheme. He does a decent job of scraping over the top on outside runs, and his speed is better to counter-spread offenses. He was solid in coverage, earning the highest PFF coverage grade of any Northwestern player this season; however, this is the Big Ten, and the run game still reigns supreme. While Metz is good against spread teams, the Illinois native needs to get better in being a support player in the run game.

Mac Uihlein: C+

Stats: 12 total Tackles, seven solo, five assisted

We did not see much of Uihlein this year, as he got the start against Minnesota when Gallagher was out with an injury; however, the sophomore was ejected for targeting midway through the second quarter. The Lake Forest native is still very raw, and he struggled to correctly fit into the run schemes. He started to find his footing in coverage in the home stretch of the season, but still has a lot of work to do before he can consistently match up against running backs. Even though he did see the field, Uihlein is an unknown commodity, and it will be interesting to see how he develops under a new defensive coordinator. If he can put it all together, the ‘Cats will have developed another solid linebacker.

Declan Carr: Incomplete

Stats: 10 total Tackles, four solo, six assisted

Carr only appeared on defense in two games and saw most of his snaps replacing Uihlein after he was ejected in Minneapolis. As his collegiate career comes to an end, the graduate student did not impact the ‘Cats defense much this season.

Wendell Davis Jr.: Incomplete

Stats: Two total Tackles, zero solo, two assisted

The Pitt transfer only appeared on defense in one game, as injuries plagued him for most of the year. Davis announced on Thursday that he was reentering the transfer portal as a graduate transfer, likely sending him to a third team in three years.