NU's Big Cats are a close group

Northwestern's offensive linemen are a bit different than some of their teammates. It's something the group embraces. With competition present for starting jobs, the linemen are working to help each other improve.

It's the job of an offensive line to work together as one cohesive unit; otherwise failure will occur. Teamwork is essential on the line -- more than any other unit on the football field.

Northwestern's offensive linemen maintain a close bond when not in a three-point stance. The 'Big 'Cats,' as they're known, train together in the weight room, eat dinner as one group, and even live together in the same house.

"We're definitely closer," said senior tackle Chuck Porcelli, who is battling to start at tackle. "Some people think we're weird, a little too tight knit. We like it that way."

Northwestern's offensive line currently holds two vacancies; one at right guard and the other at right tackle. There remain five or six candidates to become the starter at each position. This has fostered a culture of competition within the group, but naturally, it's different than at other positions.

The linemen's friendship has kept it from becoming a hostile battle. Instead, each player has pushed each other to improve; after all, being a lineman isn't an individual effort.

"We're all good friends and we want each other to succeed," said sophomore tackle Jack Konopka, a candidate for the position of right tackle. "By me getting better, I'm only going to make whoever is in front of me better and visa versa. If I'm the starter, whoever is behind me is only going to make me better. We each have got to try to push each other."

Konopka entered the program as a lineman, but was moved to the superback position on his first day of camp last year. He can boast one thing that every lineman dreams of; hauling in a catch.

Throughout camp, Konopka has seen the majority of reps at right tackle with the first-team offense, but has also served as the backup left tackle, too. The transition back to the offensive line was a natural one, given his athleticism, but took some time to master.

"Spring ball was a little bit of a learning curve," Konopka said. "Now that I've had all summer to work with the older guys, [offensive line coach Adam Cushing], I'm starting to move forward and pick things up."

The decision of picking starters for each position won't be easy. Northwestern's offensive line is deeper and more talented than ever before. Konopka, Porcelli, plus Paul Jorgensen are battling for right tackle. At right guard, Matt Frazier may have a slight lead on Neal Deiters.

"I think there is any number of guys that can step up and start for our offensive line," said senior left tackle Patrick Ward. "Throughout camp, there will continue to be position battles. I know whoever goes out there will get the job done."

Two weeks into preseason camp, with time ticking away before Northwestern's season-opener with Syracuse, the decision isn't getting any easier for the coaches.

"Its's the best problem going, to have a bunch of guys for a couple spots," offensive line coach Adam Cushing said. "What we're going to do is find the best five guys to put on the field for any one time."

During the offseason, each offensive lineman spent time in the weight room working as a group, but also put in addition time walking through footwork drills. The main point of emphasis was building group chemistry, certainly no challenge for this unit.

"We're the 'Big 'Cats,'" said Porcelli. "We've got to do everything together."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He currently resides on Chicago's north side.
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