The biggest (early) football mystery is on the offensive line
Things have been rosy when thinking about the 2013 football season at this point in January. Yes, the pun in that sentence was intended.
It has not even been a month since NU’s glorious Gator Bowl victory and thoughts of 2013 are dancing around. We can break down all the skill players returning — the quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, running back Venric Mark and the bevy of wide receivers returning from what was supposed to be the best group in the Big Ten — and the hope that the defense and secondary continue to grow. Northwestern’s program trajectory is going up.
Before you book your ticket to Pasadena or Orlando for Northwestern’s next bowl victory, remember that there are still big questions in one of the most important areas for Northwestern. NU’s offensive line is replacing three of its five starters.
What was a strength last year — and very well could be the reason Venric Mark was able to emerge (just watch the Minnesota game again) — is the biggest question mark now for Northwestern football. The stalwarts on the line are once again center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Jack Konopka. Vitabile is likely to be a candidate for the All-Big Ten team at center as he is starting his third year at the position. Konopka had a rough start to the year at right tackle, but really grew into the position.
Northwestern will certainly be leaning on those two to anchor the offensive line and repeat last year’s performance.
In the running for those three remaining spots along the line? That would be sophomores Shane Mertz and Geoff Mogus. Mogus has seen the most game action and Mertz has drawn high praise from the coaching staff — nicknamed the U.S.S. Mertz. Generally those filling in the empty slots along the line will be very very young and with little playing experience at the moment.
And that does not get into the bevy of redshirt freshman and true freshman that could be in the mix for starting spots. There is a ton of uncertainty about how this group will perform.
Northwestern last year was built around this strong offensive line. Venric Mark was a revelation at running back and he took advantage of every slight hole he could fit his way through. Similarly did Kain Colter. And often Colter and Trevor Siemian had plenty of time to throw as the veteran offensive line gave up only 16 sacks after a rough 2011. This stat will be an important one to watch when September comes around.
Each offensive line is certainly different. An experienced group and struggle as much as a young offensive line can succeed.
All those “skill players” though will not be used to their full potential if this offensive line does not work well together. And that is what has to be the biggest concern for Northwestern and the thing that could send all those rosy predictions crashing down.
Here, spring practice will be critical to start building trust and chemistry along the offensive line — let alone figure out roles and who will actually start. It is hard for those outside not watching practice every day to know what is going on with the offensive line. Stats do not quite tell us who is doing their job. But when spring practice comes around, NU will have to begin solving this mystery and come up with an answer on the offensive line.