Expectations High On Front Five

Ask Pat Fitzgerald or any other college coach about preseason watch lists and they'll tell you it's all overrated. In the dog days of summer, hype and expectations are built up around teams and certain players with little merit or reasoning. For Northwestern's offensive line—a largely-heralded unit—things are different. The hype is real and expectations are rightfully high.

The Wildcats' offensive line brings unmatched experience and consistency. The unit features 137 combined starts—second in the entire country. In addition, NU has four returning starters from 2010 and two players--Al Netter and Ben Burkett—whom have started in each game of their collegiate careers.

With plenty of experience under the offensive line's collective belt, there's a lot riding on the group. Expectations are high on the front-five, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald agrees.

"They should be," Fitzgerald said of those expectations. "They've started a lot of football games. If you were to ask me what group to have (the expectations) on, I'd want to have it on that group. I'm excited to watch them grow in camp."

When talking about Northwestern's 2011 team, names like Dan Persa, Jeremy Ebert, and Drake Dunsmore come to mind. With Persa's return, there's plenty of preseason hype and excitement being built around the Wildcats' star power.

As Fitzgerald knows, it all starts up front. With the Wildcats' fast-paced spread offense, consistency is the key. That all begins with the offensive line.

"It's going to be important for that group to come together and re-solidify the fight in camp," Fitzgerald said.

In that magic number of 137, the Wildcats receive a big boost in leadership. Part of that leadership comes off the field—in team workouts and offseason activities—but according to Fitzgerald, that experience pays dividends during those crucial in-game moments.

"In a 72-degree room on a 100-degree day, (leadership) is great," Fitzgerald said. "What are they going to do when they face adversity? What are we going to do when we blow a call and Danny gets hit? How they deal with that as a group collectively is going to determine how successful we'll be on offense and as a team."

The afore mentioned Netter and Burkett join Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward as penciled-in starters on the line. The only vacancy is at right guard. Senior Doug Bartels and junior Neal Deiters are set to battle it out for the open position, while younger players such as redshirt freshman standout Paul Jorgensen settle in as reserve players.

While Northwestern's veteran-laden starting-five takes the field this season, the Wildcats must also work to build for the future.

"In six months, we'll have the youngest offensive line in the Big Ten," Fitzgerald said. "(Offensive line coach Adam Cushing) has not only got to develop the older guys, he's got to develop the younger guys too."

Putting aside preseason watch lists, rankings, and evaluations, Fitzgerald is excited about the Wildcats' offensive line.

"I like the group and I think they're going to do a great job," he said. "Now we've got to go out and do it."

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