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Way-Too-Early Depth Charts: Projecting NU’s 2021 LB Order

Despite losing Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, the second line of the Wildcat defense remains fairly strong.

After four years of spectacular linebacker play, the “Irish Law Firm”—the trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin—is losing two attorneys. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher is off to the NFL, and Blake Gallagher has graduated, leaving two spots in the second line up for grabs. 

Northwestern's new Defensive Coordinator, Jim O’Neil, says that the new defense won’t “blow anything up scheme-wise.” Fans should expect to see a mixture of 3-4 and 4-3 concepts. This emphasizes linebacker play because the group has to be able to bridge the pressure up front with the secondary coverage. 

Northwestern hasn’t lacked in defense, finishing 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency and first in red zone touchdown percentage in 2020.

One linebacker spot will be filled by the lone remaining member of the “Irish Law Firm,” senior LB Chris Bergin. Bergin has played in 46 games for Northwestern and has racked up 227 total tackles. His experience will be crucial for a team breaking in new starters. Behind Bergin is junior linebacker Jaylen Rivers, who has played in 13 career games for the Wildcats.

Replacing Paddy Fisher in the middle of the defense is no easy task, and for Northwestern there has been a competition to replace Fisher at MIKE linebacker.

Junior Bryce Gallagher played in every game in 2020 and recorded three total tackles, and the younger brother of one third of the “Irish Law Firm” could be the next man up in the middle. Gallagher is competing against redshirt junior Khalid Jones, who also recorded three total tackles but only played in three games in 2020. 

However, keep an eye on early enrollee Mac Uihlein. Uihlein was the Wildcats’ highest rated recruit in 2021, and the local product could see the field as early as game one. Uihlein was a great blitzer in high school, and O’Neil could use him to create more pressures and sacks. Northwestern finished 100th in the nation in sacks per game according to TeamRankings, and in O’Neil’s hybrid defense, Uihlein could take on a large role quickly.

According to The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna, senior linebacker Peter McIntyre has impressed coaches in the spring and likely has the upper hand in the fight at the WILL linebacker position. Another young guy to look out for at this position is Michael Jansey Jr., who didn’t play at all during his first year. Coming out of high school, Jansey Jr. was also an effective blitzer who demonstrated fantastic closing speed at the position.

Grayson Mann is another guy who received playing time last year and could be a versatile player at any of the three linebacker spots. Additionally, Troy Hudetz, who played in every game for the Wildcats in 2020, could be another option. 

Sophomore Cullen Coleman is the biggest linebacker on the team at 240 pounds, and could also be used as a rusher off the edge if need be. Sophomore Xander Mueller was a former three-star recruit who has the talent to play at either outside linebacker position.

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Replacing 733 career tackles between Fisher and Gallagher isn’t easy, but this group remains strong and talented, despite the lack of playing time. 

At SAM linebacker, expect Chris Bergin to continue to be the cornerstone of the unit and provide leadership plus experience. MIKE is an open battle that will likely go on through fall camp and will finish with Bryce Gallagher manning the middle. WILL linebacker should go to the more experienced Peter McIntyre. However, Uihlein, Jansey Jr., and Coleman should receive a lot of playing time in this more aggressive defense.

Overall, this linebacker unit could go through some early bumps and bruises to start the season. However, this group has the talent to make an impact not only this year, but for years to come.

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