Position Preview: Linebacker
By John Volk
The strength of Northwestern’s defensive heading into 2020 is undoubtedly its linebacker room and its headliner Paddy Fisher. At one point projected as a first round draft pick, Fisher decided to return to Evanston for his fifth season in December, bringing his 318 tackles career tackles with him.
Fisher won’t be the only familiar face among the Wildcat linebackers. All three starters in 2019 are back, with seniors Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin taking the spots to Fisher’s left and right. In fact, assuming no linebackers opt out of the season, Northwestern returns 100% of the production from its linebackers a season ago.
Besides more of the same, here’s what to expect in 2020:
The group of Fisher, Gallagher and Bergin had more total tackles (266) in 2019 than any other linebacker trio in the Big Ten, according to NCAA Statistics. Penn State’s 249 tackles from Micah Parsons, Cam Brown and Jan Johnson were the next closest. While that statistic says a lot about Pat Fitzgerald’s tendency to keep in the base defense, it also shows that there isn’t a weak link among the starters. Any one of the three can make a key stop.
Nevertheless, Fisher’s 2019 wasn’t the statistical showcase many expected from him. His 89 tackles were down from 113 in 2017 and 116 in 2018, and he forced just 2 fumbles compared to 4 in each of the previous two seasons. A down season for Fisher, however, was still enough to land him on the All-Big Ten Third Team.
A Paddy Fisher intent on bringing his draft stock back up should do plenty of damage in 2020. He’s among the best run stopping middle linebackers in the conference, and despite his dip in tackles last year, he’s liable to rack up 100 or more again this fall. I suspect we’ll more layers to Fisher’s game this year as well, with the departure of Joe Gaziano on the defensive line leaving question marks in the pass rush. Fisher has just 2 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in the last three seasons, but those numbers will go up if he’s expected to blitz more. His pass defense is the biggest area to improve, with 3 interceptions and 11 pass breakups since 2017.
Gallagher will line up at weak side linebacker again after leading the team in tackles for the second consecutive season. The Raynham, Mass. native has been quietly dominant for the Wildcats since 2018, racking up 215 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 All-Big Ten honorable mentions. Like Fisher, Gallagher is a traditional 4-3 run stuffer who doesn’t participate much in the pass rush — he hasn’t recorded a sack in his Northwestern career — but who provides another anchor on the defense.
Finally, Chris Bergin at strong side linebacker provides much of the same abilities as Fisher and Gallagher. Bergin took over the position from Nate Hall in 2018 and has appeared in every game since. He contributed 86 tackles and 6 tackles for loss in 2019.
The Two Deep
Expect Northwestern to put Fisher, Gallagher and Bergin on the field for as many plays as possible with the limited in-game experience behind them. The immediate backups are most likely senior Erik Mueller and junior Peter McIntyre.
Mueller appeared in 25 games over the last two seasons, totaling 11 tackles and half a tackle for loss. McIntyre found the field 11 times in 2019 and made 2 tackles. A former top prospect out of Ohio, McIntyre figures to fill in as an outside linebacker.
Mueller and McIntyre bring the most experience of any backup linebackers, but we could also see expanded roles for younger guys like sophomores Grayson Mann and Jaylen Rivers in 2020.
Fraternity runs deep with Northwestern linebackers. Blake Gallagher’s younger brother Bryce Gallagher is a redshirt first-year in 2020. Chris Bergin’s older brother and Northwestern defensive back Joe Bergin graduated last year, but there’s a new Bergin in the fold with first-year linebacker Owen Bergin. And Erik Mueller’s younger brother Xander Mueller also joins the team as a first-year linebacker.
While Owen Bergin and Xander Mueller might not see much of the field this fall, Bryce Gallagher could certainly push to contribute as part of the two deep. Gallagher recorded 3 tackles and half a tackle for loss in five appearances in 2019.
The Bottom Line
The familiar trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin will lead the way for the Northwestern defense in 2020. While the depth behind them won’t dazzle onlookers, if the starters can stay healthy, opposing offenses will struggle to run the ball against a unit characterized by veteran leadership.