Preseason Preview: Offensive Line

Continuing the weekly series, PurpleWildcats.com gives an in-depth look at Northwestern's offensive line, filled with many emerging names. Who will rise up as a starter?

Chuck Porcelli, RT

Spending three seasons learning behind Outland Trophy candidate Al Netter has prepared Porcelli to step into a starting role this season. His playing time has steadily increased since he played his first game as a redshirt freshman in 2009 against Towson.

While he may lack elite run and pass blocking skills, Porcelli's size (6-7, 315 lbs) is his biggest asset, and pass rushers will be hard pressed to bypass his massive frame. That said, he faces significant challenges in redshirt freshman Shane Mertz and sophomore Paul Jorgensen, either of whom could surpass him on the depth chart by week 1.

Jack Konopka, RG

Coach Fitzgerald was impressed with Konopka after he made the wise decision of switching positions in spring ball. Buried deep in a well-stocked Superback depth chart, the sophomore moved to the line, where he will undoubtedly get more playing time.

The switch will come with its share of challenges, especially early in the season, but if Konopka can bring his athleticism, work ethic and grit in the trenches on a weekly basis, Fitzgerald and his staff will be happy with Konopka's decision.

Senior Neal Deiters will battle Konopka for the starting job, and it's still unclear whether Fitzgerald will opt for Dieters', the more experienced, high-IQ player, or Konopka, the new convert.

Brandon Vitabile, C

Heading into spring practice last year, veteran Ben Burkett was the unquestioned starter at center. That changed quickly once Vitabile grabbed hold of the starting job, forcing Burkett to change positions. His first start came against Boston College, and Vitabile never looked back from there.

His steady, consistent play earned him a spot on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the nation's best center. While it's highly unlikely he'll take home that honor—certainly not this season—he's developed into a viable candidate for All-conference recognition and should be a mainstay along the line for the next three seasons.

Brian Mulroe, LG

A third-year starter, Mulroe earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition for his efforts in 2011 and will challenge for All-conference honors again this season. He's the Wildcats' commander in the trenches, a true leader capable of making adjustments on the fly and tutoring the younger players.

The Wildcats need another strong season from Mulroe if they hope to improve upon their poor offensive line play last season, when they ranked eleventh among Big Ten teams in sacks allowed.

Patrick Ward, LT

Charged with the difficult task of replacing a legend, Ward slides over to the left side of the line after starting at right tackle last season. At 6-7, 310 lbs, he certainly has the look of a left tackle. He's also versatile enough to handle pass rushers big and small, speedy and powerful.

As Colter enters his first year as the full-time starter, it's crucial that Ward does his job keeping a clean pocket and giving Colter as much time as possible to hit open receivers.

Paul Jorgensen, OT

As Porcelli adjusts to his first year in starting role, Jorgensen will be his main competition. He appeared in 11 games last season and impressed coaches with his athleticism and quick learning curve. If Porcelli struggles, don't be surprised if Jorgensen takes over at right tackle.

Neal Deiters, OG

While Konopka provides athleticism and quickness, Fitzgerald and staff may call for Deiters to take his spot along the interior sooner than later. He's appeared in 34 games in three seasons, and brings an air of maturity to a unit that needs a veteran presence.

Shane Mertz, OT

The 6-8, 295 lb redshirt freshman was one of the highlights of NU's 2012 class. A shoulder injury sidelined him last season, but he should challenge for playing time in 2012. His colossal frame and above-average athleticism make him one of the Wildcats' most intriguing players going forward, on either side of the ball, and he could supplant Porcelli at RT with an impressive showing at preseason camp.

There's plenty of upside with Mertz, given his length, girth and long arms, but he needs to show better command of blocking principles and schemes before he's ready to thwart Big Ten pass rushers.

Geoff Mogus, OG

Given the lack of depth at guard, Mogus, a talented, highly-sought after recruit, could provide depth at the position if he impresses coaches in preseason camp.

Taylor Paxton, OG

Paxton showed improvement throughout last season and in spring practice. He continues to make strides in the weight room and will play a key reserve role at guard this season.

Hayden Baker, OG

While he lacks the size of an elite interior lineman, Baker brings the intensity and never-say-die attitude that Fitzgerald encourages in all of his players. The walk-on continues to make a strong argument for playing time along the interior. If he continues to progress in preseason camp, he could work his way into some playing time this fall.

Matt Frazier, C

Vitabile is a sure bet to keep his starting job after his sterling performance last season. But Frazier, a three-star recruit out of Illinois, provides a strong backup option if Vitabile suffers an injury.

Alex Pietrzak, C

After redshirting last season, Pietrzak is ready to compete for the backup center job. He and Frazier will battle for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart in preseason camp.

Adam DePietro, OG

One of only two four-star prospects in NU's 2012 class, DePietro could accomplish the rare feat of starting, or at least playing a significant reserve role, as a true freshman.

Mulroe is a near lock at left guard, but given the uncertainty at the other guard spot, DePietro—if he lives up to his billing in preseason camp—could ascend the depth chart and seize the starting role at some point this season.

"All these good linemen are going to change it around and make this a better place," DePietro told PurpleWildcats. com last June. "I'm really excited, I got a great feeling about the future."

Kenton Playko, OT

Another true freshman, Playko is an intriguing prospect with plenty of upside. He needs to add size to his slight frame (6-5, 260 lbs) before making a real impact down the road.

Eric Olson, OT

The Cambridge (MA) native received offers from Boston College, Duke and Virginia before announcing a joint commitment with DePietro last summer. He's not quite as polished as his signee partner, but he'll be a strong candidate for a starting tackle spot as early as next season.

Ian Park, OG

Park's commitment was welcome news for a group in dire need of an influx of young talent along the interior. It's highly unlikely he sees the field this season, but Park will be a major contributor during his time at NU.

Connor Mahoney, OG

The final piece of OL talent in NU's 2012 class, Mahoney, along with Park, promises future stability at the guard spots. At the very least, Mahoney will provide solid depth down the road. Don't expect to see him on the field this fall.

Grade: B

Last season, the Wildcats struggled against speed rushers and could never establish a strong running game. That's a fault, in large part, of the offensive line, a unit that now faces a tough road without Netter and Burkett, two four-year starters.

While Ward, Porcelli, Jorgensen and Mertz comprise a solid, diverse group of tackles, there are major concerns along the interior, where right guard remains a huge question mark. Veterans like Mulroe and Ward will need to fill the leadership void left by Netter and Burkett and hope that Vitabile continues to realize his immense potential.

All in all, with probably the conference's most mobile quarterback in Colter running the offense, the line should have little trouble preventing sacks. The difficult part will be winning the line of scrimmage and establishing a strong run game. If the guards have trouble holding their ground against D-linemen, offensive coordinator Mick McCall will be forced to rely on the passing game, thereby placing the burden squarely on the tackles.

Despite the loss of two truly consistent, productive players, the line can't be much worse than it was last season. The future is bright are both guard and tackle—what with three consecutive strong OL recruiting classes in 2011, 2012, and 2013—but the young talent on NU's roster may be a year away from earning significant playing time.


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