Sticking with Inside NU’s position-by-position evaluation of play during Northwestern’s 2023 season, we transition to the Wildcats’ linebacking corps, a group that was both veteran and impactful this season.
Overall Grade: B
In order for NU to have had a season of even decent performance on defense, one kind of knew that its linebacker bunch would need to carry the freight. For most of the year, that proved to be the case.
There were certainly struggles early in the season, with missed tackles and errant run fits plaguing games against teams like Rutgers and Duke. Even down the stretch, whiffs on ball carriers or a lack of athleticism in coverage didn’t make for a perfect year.
At the same time, the ‘Cats’ men in the middle typically not only held their own in 2023, but continued making impact plays. Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher both finished in the top four of the Big Ten in tackles, and while that metric isn’t an unblemished one, it represents just how many stops they accrued. Likewise, the two combined for 14.5 TFLs, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and six sacks. Talk about splash plays.
Beyond NU’s senior tandem, Tim McGarigle’s contingent showed flashes from young talent. Kenny Soares II had several notable plays across more limited action, including a third-quarter pass breakup on fourth down at Wisconsin. Even Braydon Brus was a standout on special teams (see: his forced fumble on Nick Singleton’s kick return to begin the Penn State game).
Collectively, this unit was one of the bigger reasons for Northwestern’s defensive turnaround, in large part because of plays in crucial moments and across multiple playmakers.
Xander Mueller: A+
When Mueller was spilled by Rutgers RB Kyle Monangai in Piscataway to open the 2023 season, it seemed a bad omen for the year to come — both for him and the team. Instead, it ended up being one of his few blemishes on a generally flawless season.
I’ve written and tweeted about Mueller’s stats and play at length this year, but it’s hard to view his season as anything other than unbelievable factoring in the timing, difficulty of and consistency of his play.
Consider his first interception against UTEP, multiple open-field tackles against Darius Taylor against Minnesota, two sacks against Howard, late-game picks vs. Purdue and Illinois and forced fumble against Utah; Mueller pretty much was the anchor of not only NU’s defense, but also its entire team. Without No. 34 in the middle, Northwestern wouldn’t have had close to the caliber of season that it did.
Getting the linebacker back for another season came as a bit of a shocker, but a very pleasant one for fans of the purple and white at that. Look for the Third Team All-Big Ten honoree to push for the top team list next season.
Bryce Gallagher: B
Gallagher was named to the conference’s Second Team following his second season of 100+ tackles and 4+ tackles for loss. He certainly had a fair share of impactful moments, such as his fourth down stop against the Utes in Allegiant Stadium or intercepting Gavin Hardison as part of a big second half for the ‘Cats against UTEP.
At the same time, Gallagher was not in the same tier as Mueller this year, and his stats back that up. Per Pro Football Focus, he missed 1.1% more tackles, and six fewer stops and allowed 54 more yards in coverage, which converts to a passer rating given up of 94.3. Mueller’s, for context, was 61.3.
With the two-time captain and NU snap leader heading off to the NFL Draft, he should have suitors as a UDFA or late-round pick, depending on Pro Day and/or Combine testing numbers.
Kenny Soares Jr.: B
Compared to elder statesmen in Mueller and Gallagher, Soares was the clear third option at ILB, playing just 301 snaps. In large part, that was due to Braun deploying Rod Heard II or Devin Turner in the box as part of his 4-2-5 scheme.
As noted earlier, Soares showed flashes of his long-term potential this year, including accruing a TFL in each of NU’s final three games. He should have continued room to develop in his junior season playing alongside Mueller, assuming he earns a starting nod.
Mac Uihlein: Incomplete
The former four-star’s career as a Wildcat has not come close to living up to the billing yet, with the Lake Forest native playing only 125 snaps this past campaign. Additionally, in that limited action, he posted a very subpar 38.8 PFF grade.
Having sat behind more experienced players for the last three seasons, Uihlein could be on the precipice of finally cracking Northwestern’s starting lineup in 2024, especially if McGarigle is promoted to the team’s DC.
Greyson Metz: Incomplete
Metz played in just three games, amassing 33 total defensive snaps. That constituted a significant reduction in playing time under a new regime, because he saw action on 370 snaps the year before.
The senior does have another year of eligibility, but my guess would be that he’ll be moving on.
Braydon Brus: Incomplete
Brus’ standout play on special teams was already mentioned, but he was part of just 22 defensive snaps in 2023. The current sophomore from California should be in the mix for either the No. 3 or No. 4 ILB spot for NU next season.