With the return of Dan Persa, the Wildcats' offense has high aspirations for this season, but for this particular offense—or any offense for the matter—strong play up front is critical. Northwestern is fortunate enough to have the most veteran-laden offensive line in the conference.
When you look at an offensive line, it's only fitting to start with the centers. After all, each play starts with the center. For the past three years, each play that Northwestern's offense runs has started with Ben Burkett.
Burkett has been a mainstay on the Wildcats' offensive line. He has started in all 39 games of his career. This season, Burkett enters on the Rimington Watch list for the third-straight season. The 6-4, 300-lb. center will again be critical in Northwestern's play up front.
After sitting out his freshman season, Brandon Vitabile is likely being groomed for the starting spot at center once Ben Burkett departs.
The redshirt freshman is listed as the Wildcats' number two behind Burkett, and gained some experience during the spring in Burkett's absence. Vitabile will have a great teacher in Burkett to prepare for his time as starter, but barring injury, his time won't come this season.
At the guard position, the Wildcats feature one returning starter and one question mark. The position of left guard is occupied by junior Brian Mulore.
The Glenview native made his first start in the Outback Bowl against Auburn, and hasn't looked back since then. After an injury-plagued 2009 season, Mulroe had a strong showing last season, and is poised for another fine season in 2011.
The only position on the offensive line which is open for competition is the right guard spot. According to the post-spring depth chart, two players are fighting for that position.
Senior guard Doug Bartels may be in-line to be the starter at right guard—something which he was in all of 2008 and part of the 2009 and 2010 season.
The 6-4, 300-pounder has started in 24 games during his career at Northwestern. He is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship after becoming the starter in 2008. This season, he hopes to earn back a starting spot.
The other candidate for the top spot at right guard is 6-8, 315-lb. junior Neal Dieters. As a redshirt freshman, Dieters started seven games at guard, but returned to a reserve role last season. Dieters brings great size and versatility to the offensive line. He hopes this pays off in 2011.
A few other potential candidates for the starting spot include redshirt freshman Paul Jorgensen—who was very impressive during the spring—as well as incoming freshmen Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier.
There are no questions at the tackle position as Northwestern looks to the 2011 season. The Wildcats return two starters—one of those being a three-year starter and returning co-captain.
Fifth-year senior Al Netter joins Ben Burkett as the Wildcats' other three-year starter on the offensive line. He was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection. As left tackle, Netter holds the simple role of keeping Dan Persa upright this season.
Behind Netter is junior-to-be Chuck Porcelli, who may be next in line to take the starting job in 2012. Porcelli brings great size at 6-7, 320-lbs. A year of observing Al Netter will do him plenty good this season.
At the other tackle spot, junior Patrick Ward is slated to start at the right tackle position. Ward has started in 25 games during his first two seasons in Evanston, and will be back to his role as starter.
Northwestern also has the option of using Paul Jorgensen—listed as a tackle on the post-spring depth chart—as a guard or tackle in the future. Also, incoming freshmen Shane Mertz and Jack Konopka will likely redshirt and learn from the veterans on top of the depth chart.
Offensive line grade: A
Many teams are facing problems with newcomers taking starting jobs and position battles. Northwestern is in a very fortunate position. With four returning starters and 137 combined starts, the NU offensive line is definitely a major strength this season.
Al Netter and Patrick Ward will anchor the offensive line at the tackle positions, while Ben Burkett and Brian Mulroe have locked up starting spots at center and guard. As for the other guard position, the ‘Cats have a few viable options who each have starting experience. Offensive line coach Adam Cushing has a top-notch unit this season.