Plugging the Offensive Line

I go from talking about the running backs and the questions Northwestern has for its running backs to wondering what will happen with the men clearing the path for whomever is in the backfield. The offensive line for Northwestern last year was seen as a preseason strength but turned out to be a big question mark.

Entering last season, the Wildcats had four starters returning to their offensive line. Experts thought the experience would be a positive for the Wildcats and enable them to gain some traction on the ground and better protect Dan Persa as he came back from injury. That did not quite happen. Persa still had to make some great escapes and his nagging injury did not help him as he danced around the pocket. Kain Colter did much of the same when he took the reigns. The run game was never established either.

The Wildcats have experience in three of the five positions on the offensive line this time. But NU will not rest on the laurels of experience. It is going to take work to control the line of scrimmage and protect the quarterback and open holes for the running backs.

Last year, Northwestern gave up 42 sacks — about 3.2 per game — and cleared the way for only 166.6 yards per game. Some of those sacks may have come from Colter or Persa being rushers more than passers at times. But protecting the quarterback, no matter how much he dances in the pocket, is imperative in this offense because of how much it relies on the pass. In that sense, last year was something of a disappointment.

The unit has some big shoes to fill after losing team captain Al Netter to graduation. Those shoes have begun to be filled by starting center sophomore Brandon Vitabile. He started at center all last year and was named to the Rimington Award watch list. Northwestern continues to expect big things from Vitabile.

The rest of the line? Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward return to anchor the left side. the two positions on the right side of the offensive line will still likely be open competition in camp. Chris Emma of reports sophomore Paul Jorgensen and senior Chuck Porcelli saw the most reps on the right side of the line through one practice.

Emphasis on one practice — there are plenty more to go. Emma reports Shane Mertz could also compete for time on the offensive line. And somewhere on the depth chart is former-offensive lineman-turned-superback-turned-offensive lineman-again Jack Konopka. He may need a year to continue putting weight on to get back to being an offensive lineman. It is also not likely that any of the freshman — such as Adam DePietro — will avoid a redshirt and a year in the weight room.

Undoubtedly though, it is important for Northwestern to control the line of scrimmage. That is often where games are won and lost. And while much of the focus has been put on the struggles the defensive line has had creating pressure in the backfield, focus should still be on controlling the offensive line and protecting the quarterback. After all, how can we see how strong Kain Colter’s arm really is if he is more focused on evading an oncoming pass rush.

It is true Northwestern’s offensive linemen are not as hefty as some of their counterparts in the Big Ten — only Dieters, Porcelli and Vitabile top 300 pounds with Mertz and Jorgensen listed at 295 pounds — and that may be part of the disadvantage of Northwestern. But weight is not everything. The Wildcats are capable of protecting the quarterback and giving Northwestern the time it needs to run its offense.

Finding those new starters and getting consistency on the offensive line will be critical for the Wildcats this season. The work done these early days in practice will help establish this important unit. Experience may not be everything, but hopefully this time the experience pays off and the Wildcats get the work on the offensive line they need for success.

  • skepticat

    Sorry for the off-topic, but I’m a little surprised this tidbit has slipped through the cracks:

    “But because of a new rule change, a 5-7 season still might be enough to get the Wildcats into a bowl this season. ”

    • cece

      thanks for posting. that is a very interesting piece, especially because they are counting academic progress as a factor for deciding athletic participation! back to the future? heard on tv, the Olympics apparently used to include other contests, like things with literature.

      Go ‘Cats! just win.

  • cebpd

    Size is not everything with an OL. weight alone does not account for strength, mobility, foot speed, etc. bad comparison to rest of B1G, especially because so few teams run the spread.

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      I agree, weight is not everything. But it is a big difference between Northwestern’s offensive linemen and those in the rest of the Big Ten. The unit needs to play well for the Wildcats to find success. After all, Prater or Christian and Tony Jones’ ability to stretch defenses downfield is meaningless if Kain Colter is keeping a quick count in his head and running for his life in the backfield.

      • gocatsgo2003

        The depressed weights of our linemen are more a function of the high-tempo offense we run that requires our big men to be in shape to move along with the offense. Another example is Oregon, where most of their linemen last year were in the 290-300 range with the lone exception being their RG at 325.

  • VAWildcat

    I saw this note that Zach Bradshaw, a 3 star receiver, has decommitted from PSU and has narrowed his choices to UVA, South Carolina, and NU.

    I also understand that PSU Trustees are suing and/or appealing over the NCAA sanctions. Lot of damage already done, so a suit may not accomplish much, but it’s going to drag things out longer.

  • Ron

    Don’t know how the PSU trustees can appeal something that was imposed with the consent of their own university. Got a cite for that? The Paterno family (who really need to sit down and shut up) tried to appeal, but I believe they were summarily ignored.

  • skepticat

    A more in-depth, behind-the-scenes story of Penn St’s sanctions:

    The gist being that the board of trustees wasn’t kept apprised of the “negotiations” with the NCAA, though Erickson claims the sanctions would’ve been scrapped for a 4-year death penalty if any “leaks” of the sanctions occurred, i.e. the whole thing was a “cram down”. Nor had the board apparently accepted, or even read, the Freeh report when the chairman released a press statement to that effect.

    From the other ESPN story (already linked above), this also appears to be a subset of the trustees acting on their own, not the entire board. And they’re talking lawsuit, not just an appeal.

    The upper echelons of leadership appear to be on the brink of disintegration over there.

    • cece

      more lack of institutional control.

    • skepticat

      On the other hand, the NCAA opened the door for this when they abandoned due process so they could make a “bold” PR move and show everyone they’re charge. Meh. All too typical these days.

  • Mark

    After just rewatching the Nebraska game I really wonder why the O line wasn’t more dominant last year. They really got after the Nebraska defense. Also, not only did four starters return last year, but there was another guy, Doug Bartels, who had a lot of starts and was a great contributor.

  • JM

    The fact of the matter on the o-line is that we had essentially the same group for three straight years, and they did not only improve. In fact, they got worse.

    That’s coaching, folks. And we have not had good coaching on the o-line. Which is why we were not able to reliably run or pass protect last year despite one of the most experienced groups in the country.

    Fingers crossed that it was just a stubborn, uncoachable group of players. But I sort of doubt it.

    • gocatsgo2003

      Or it could be those players reaching their physical peaks, which wasn’t quite in the elite category. Burkett had an occasional mean streak but was limited as an athlete. Netter was a better athlete but probably would have played guard at a top-flight school. Porcelli, Deiters, and even Ward are similarly limited by their athleticism. The good news is that the younger crop of linemen — Jorgensen, DePietro, Olson, Park, Playko, Mogus, Frazier, and the 2013 recruits — are much better pure athletes, though it remains to be seen whether they will turn into better football players.