Everyone knew that Cushing could recruit. Last year, they realized just how well he could coach. Despite the new faces up front — including converted superback Jack Konopka – NU dominated in the trenches more often than not.
Now, Cushing faces an even more daunting task. With Brian Mulroe, Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters preparing to graduate, the line is practically depleted. Cushing, however, prepares to take advantage of his new, imposing threats.
Despite some depth chart uncertainty, spring drills have assuaged any O-line doubts. Geoff Mogus holds strong at guard. And at each of the tackle positions, Shane Mertz appears to be the force many fans expected.
When asked to evaluate his offensive line, Pat Fitzgerald praised nearly everyone in an extensive minute-long response. And although it's only spring, from the outside eye, the transition has been seamless.
But in terms of true breakouts, Mertz and Mogus are the embodiment of strides NU has taken to improve its offensive line. They're highly-touted recruits who likely learned from their redshirt experiences. And they're ready to use their incredible size.
Mogus reportedly grew to approximately 300 pounds this offseason, and seems to have locked down the left guard spot. Mertz, at 6-8, is locked in competition with Paul Jorgensen for another starter's role. In those first critical tests of spring, with Colter and Mark running that tried-and true option, they stuck with their assignments as though they were in midseason form. It's an adjustment, no doubt, but it's one the pair is ready for.
Gone is the smartest player on the team. Patrick Ward, as of this fall, held a 3.94 grade point average as a mechanical engineering major — with his only B+ in French. His teammates viewed him as a leader both on and off the field. Brian Mulroe, meanwhile, earned media second-team All-Big Ten recognition for his play at left guard. There are big shoes to fill here.
But just as significant is the foundation in place. Brandon Vitabile emerged as one of the more underrated centers in the conference. Despite some miscues last season, he's undoubtedly the ideal man at center — and well on his way to being a four-year starter. Even last season, he told Purple Wildcats that he embraced a leadership role, and took great pride in that unit grading out especially well. Konopka also eased into the starter's role throughout the season, improving as the year progressed.
The offensive line propelled Venric Mark to a jaw-dropping 1366 rushing yards. With Mark and the dynamic Kain Colter still occupying the backfield, there are high expectations to maintain this success. That begins with Mogus and Mertz, who bring the size factor and look ready to excel under Coach Cushing.
It's time for every offensive lineman to prove his worth. The 2013 class brings four talented newcomers, though Tyler Lancaster will begin his career on defense. Cushing found the recipe for on-field success last season, and that looks to continue in the next few years.
With this being the most-anticipated season in recent Northwestern football history, the offensive line can't afford any regression. The Wildcats have Big Ten Championship aspirations, as evidenced by the 5:03 on those now-famous workout shirts.
And in those painful minutes, and often during many of the 60 in each game, you can forget about offensive line play amidst the splashy highlight-reel performances.
Yet at the end of the day, obviously, so much success traces back to the work up front. For NU, last season was a resounding success. This year, with three new starters, they need a repeat performance. And something tells me that Mogus and Mertz will be at the center of it all.