As we inch closer to Northwestern’s season opener against Rutgers on Sept. 3, today we shine a light on the cornerstones of the Wildcats’ defense: the linebackers.
Returning Starters: Bryce Gallagher (R-Sr.), Xander Mueller (R-Jr.), Greyson Metz (R- Jr.)
Key Losses: Wendell Davis Jr., Declan Carr, Khalid Jones
Returning members: Braydon Brus (R-Fy.), Kenny Soares Jr. (R-Fy.), Mac Uihlein (R-So.), Jason Reynolds II (R-Fy.), Cullen Coleman (R-Jr.), Owen Bergin (R-Jr.), Miles Crutchley (R-Fy.)
New additions: None (First-years Justin Cryer and Nigel Glover transferred after the termination of Pat Fitzgerald)
Northwestern returns its entire starting linebacker group from last season, bringing a heavy amount of experience at the helm of the ‘Cats’ defense. Gallagher and Mueller led the squad in tackles last year, racking up a combined 187 total tackles on the year. The tandem additionally created four turnovers. The duo made up two of the few bright spots on Jim O’Neil’s defense in 2022, and should continue to thrive under David Braun.
The ‘Cats will run Braun’s 4-3 defense this season, meaning three linebackers will be on the field. Based on the snap count from last season, Metz would be the odds-on favorite to be the final linebacker in the starting trio; however, Uihlein showed some flashes last season, and if he has a strong camp, could compete for the starting job. Braun has talked about using a defensive back in the box, instead of a third linebacker, to alleviate the linebackers’ responsibility in pass coverage and allow them to play more downhill in the run game, an area in which the ‘Cats’ backers thrive.
For Northwestern, its linebackers can only be as successful as its defensive line allows them to be. The Wildcats’ D-line will need to eat blocks and ensure that the linebackers remain free to plug gaps and make plays on the ball carriers. Gallagher and Mueller understand run fits extremely well, but none of that matters if opposing offensive linemen are getting free passes to the second level and getting their hands on the linebackers, either forcing the backers to take a bad angle or completely washing them out of the play.
Not surprising that NU’s starting mike linebacker, leading tackler and captain would be the player to watch out of the group. Gallagher was one of the three Wildcats to be named All-Big Ten last season, joining NFL draft picks Peter Skoronski and Adetomiwa Adebawore. No. 32 was all over the field for Northwestern in 2022, being the only player to reach triple-digit tackles. Five of his tackles went for losses, and he also added 1.5 sacks to his accolades as well. According to PFF, he added a QB hit and six hurries too.
While Gallagher was good in the run defense and pass rush, he was horrid in coverage. He earned a meager 46.2 PFF pass coverage grade. He allowed completions on over two-thirds of targets, giving up over 16 yards per reception. The Wildcats’ captain struggled to play sideline to sideline, and could not keep up with the speed of the running backs and spread tight ends he was asked to cover.
He is the definition of an old-school Big Ten linebacker, still wearing a neck roll as he tries to blow up the hole. He is a battering ram, flying downhill with no regard for human life, and hits with tenacity. He is a tremendous run stopper, but needs to improve drastically against the pass if he wants to become a complete player. Gallagher told Big Ten Network that he has lost a few pounds and feels more fluid playing from sideline to sideline, so he has already taken steps to improve in the area of need.
Furthermore, Gallagher will be responsible for leading and communicating a new defensive scheme on the field. As a middle linebacker, it is his responsibility to make sure the D-Line is aligned correctly before the snap and relay the call to his teammates in the back end. Coach Braun has complimented Bryce’s leadership skills multiple times this offseason, so expect the rising senior to be at the forefront as the Wildcats try to emerge from a nightmare of an offseason.
Can the ‘Cats defend against the pass?
If you watched any Northwestern game last season, it seemed that opposing tight ends and running backs had free rein over the field. Jim O’Neil’s scheme left the Wildcats with unfavorable matchups every week and pitted the linebackers against players who were blatantly more athletic than them in open space. It was less than ideal for the Wildcats. The starting trio allowed nearly 78% of passes to be completed for over 10 yards a catch. With David Braun now at the helm of the ‘Cats’ defense, the question remains: What will NU do to fix this issue?
It would be irresponsible to assume that in nine months, both Gallagher and Mueller have made significant improvement in this area and will now be lockdown when the ball is in the air. Northwestern will have to limit the number of snaps that both players have to leave the box and cover swing backs or athletic tight ends in space, but taking them off the field seems like a risky option. While Braun’s base system is a 4-3, it is safe to assume that the ‘Cats will use a nickel package and bring an extra defensive back onto the field, hoping to tighten the coverage in obvious passing situations. If the Wildcats decide to use a nickel corner, it allows the linebackers to engage more in the pass rush, where NU definitely needs help without a bonafide edge rusher.
During training camp, Northwestern will have to come up with a game plan to not leave its linebackers on an island, or else the Wildcats will face the same problem that created deficits they could not overcome in 2022.
Depth Chart (according to ourlads.com)
2023 LB Depth Chart (per Ourlads.com)