Football Notebook: Gallagher embraces crucial role on defense, Fitzgerald declines to reveal a starting quarterback


Daily file photo by Carly Schulman

Junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher readies for the snap against Wisconsin. Gallagher is the top returning tackler and one of two defensive captains on the Northwestern defense.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

When Northwestern takes the field in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on Saturday, junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher will be an important Wildcat to watch.

Statistically, Gallagher was one of the team’s most productive defenders last season and is the top returning tackler after notching 89 total tackles in 2021. He was also one of three juniors selected as a 2022 captain and will helm the defense at the linebacker position. 

Gallagher knows communication is key to defensive execution, and he said he is not shying away from that responsibility.

“There were definitely times last year where my communication failed, so learning from that this year and making sure that I’m being loud and confident in my communication out there is an area where I’ve grown throughout the offseason,” Gallagher said at a Monday press conference. “That falls on my shoulders, and I take great pride in that.”

Gallagher is one of the most experienced members of NU’s defense, and with that familiarity comes even higher expectations. Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Gallagher a standout performer in preseason camp and said he felt the junior’s selection as a captain was “appropriate.”

The linebacker unit will have new faces in the starting lineup after the graduation of third-team All-Big Ten selection Chris Bergin, and Gallagher said the newcomers’ training camp performances excited him. Redshirt junior Wendell Davis Jr. transferred from Atlantic Coast Conference champion Pittsburgh and brings starting experience to the Cats’ defense, while junior Xander Mueller will look to expand his role after registering 19 tackles as a sophomore.

“Everyone has a great football IQ, and then being able to go out on the field and execute, that’s the biggest thing,” Gallagher said. “As far as camp’s gone and game week, the execution aspect is such a big thing, and I’ve been really happy with everyone in the room.”

After a 2021 season that saw the Cats go from the best scoring defense in the Big Ten West to the worst, NU’s defense has a prime opportunity to make a statement in its opener against a revamped Nebraska offense. Gallagher is poised to be a crucial piece of that effort.

“Being Irish myself, I’m excited to go over there and indulge in the culture a bit and see what it’s like,” Gallagher said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business trip — we’re going over there to play a football game.”

Fitzgerald keeps fans — and Nebraska — in the dark

Fans hoping for an announcement of the Cats’ starting quarterback Monday were left waiting for at least a couple more days, as Fitzgerald declined to provide updates on the competition.

“I’ve been thinking about this all night, and I’m not going to tell you anything,” Fitzgerald joked. 

If Fitzgerald takes the quarterback decision up until the opening whistle, the move would have precedent. In 2019, NU kept the identity of its starting quarterback secret until the day of its season opener against Stanford. 

In prior press conferences, Fitzgerald said he was impressed by this year’s competition between junior Ryan Hilinski and sophomore Brendan Sullivan. Still, social media prompted some to assume the more experienced Hilinski earned the starting nod. Hilinski posted a picture of himself at preseason camp on Instagram on Sunday, and many of his teammates appeared to comment their congratulations on the message.


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A post shared by Ryan Hilinski (@ryanhilinski)

As of Monday evening, the Cats have yet to post a two-deep depth chart, either, and Fitzgerald did not give any personnel updates.

Running backs eager to share the load

NU’s running back group is one of the most accomplished and deepest units on the team, with captains junior Evan Hull and graduate student Andrew Clair, 2020 rushing leader Cam Porter and promising sophomore Anthony Tyus III.

Clair said the leadership from the running backs, evident from the two captain selections, has set the tone for the rest of the Cats.

“You can see the type of leadership that comes from the room, the energy,” Clair said. “It’s great to see how the team has felt from the energy and impact that has come from the room.” 

From an on-the-field standpoint, both the running backs and their coaches believe the unit will form a cohesive and dangerous backfield against the Cornhuskers despite the players’ unique styles.

“We all have our different strengths for sure, and I think that’s what makes our group so dangerous,” Hull said. “We really all complement each other, because we can all play different roles out on the offense.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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