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 PurpleWildcats.com 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.