WildcatReport continues its position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Wildcats by looking at the offensive line.
At Big Ten Media Days, head coach Pat Fitzgerald called this 2013 group "as talented as we've had." Unfortunately, talent does not necessarily equate itself with production. After losing second-team All-Big Ten left guard Brian Mulroe, left tackle Patrick Ward, right guard Neal Deiters and right tackle Chuck Porcelli, Northwestern must replace several key contributors. The offensive linemen responsible for 99 of the 138 total starts in 2012 have graduated.
Still, Fitzgerald isn't lying; the returning players possess a great deal of talent. Center Brandon Vitabile started every game during his first two seasons, and he is now a Rimington Award candidate. Jack Konopka started all 13 games after he switched from superback to tackle last year, and right tackle Paul Jorgensen made the most of the solid playing time he earned as a junior, hauling in a 24-yard touchdown reception against Illinois.
A couple of the younger players also made appearances in reserve roles. At the guard positions, Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier each had an impact during their freshman seasons. With Vitabile, Konopka, Jorgensen, Mogus and Frazier providing the most experience, they appear primed to become the 2013 starting lineup. Fitzgerald, however, made clear during Big Ten Media Days that competition during camp would be fierce for several starting jobs.
That leaves room for several others to earn playing time off the bench. Tackle Shane Mertz missed all last season with injury, while guard Adam DePietro and tackle Eric Olson both redshirted. Fitzgerald also mentioned Ian Park during Big Ten Media Days as a candidate to see big playing time this season. None of these players have much experience, but they will likely be called upon this season.
Last year saw great improvement on the offensive line. The Wildcats went from allowing 42 sacks in 2011 to just 16 in 2012 as the core became more and more experienced. The rushing attack also benefitted, as the men up front helped increase the total output on the ground from a respectable 2,166 yards in 2011 to a dominant 2,932. Much of the credit goes to Venric Mark for his breakout year, but the offensive line paved the way.
Now, they lose the crew largely behind that improvement from a year ago. Every other facet of the offense clearly has the tools to take a major step forward, but for it all to come together, the o-line needs to make it happen.
What we liked in 2012: Staying fresh
Northwestern offensive line coach Adam Cushing has brought a different style to his crew than seen with most other teams. Last season, there was not a single distinct lineup that played the majority of games; although the starters may have largely remained the same, Cushing rotated in reserves at a higher-than-average rate.
Cushing's style worked. Getting fresh legs helped them to lead one of the best rushing attacks in the country, and one that Northwestern fans hope is still improving. Without a starting lineup set in stone, it seems like the Cats will once again have a lot of players in the fold, so 2013 seems to be another year of the same.
What we want more of in 2013: New guys stepping up
As Vitabile and Konopka are the only returning starters on the line, it's going to be a fight for playing time alongside them. For the Cats to be successful, they can't simply rely on their experience. The whole group needs to build chemistry and gel, but each individual needs to do his part as well.
Jorgensen, Mogus and Frazier need to embrace leadership roles, because they are three of the few with significant experience under their belts. But these players alone will not be able to anchor a staunch running attack. Mertz, DePietro and Olson need to show that they are capable of being offensive linemen in the Big Ten. It's a tall task, but one Fitzgerald and Co. seem confident.
Every part of the offense is primed for a big year, but for it to happen, Vitabile and his crew have to mesh. Fitz says that they have the talent, but it has yet to be seen if the chemistry is there. Mark and Kain Colter may be the exciting players to watch when the Wildcats open the season against Cal in just a few short weeks, but the offensive line will be just as important.