New look, same approach

Locked in competition for the starter's roles, the Northwestern offensive line is enjoying every minute.

Pat Fitzgerald said on Saturday that he adjusted the annual Northwestern Spring Game due to lack of offensive line depth.

"It's not very conducive to scrimmaging," Fitzgerald said.

Still, it only made sense for the "open practice" to conclude with the offensive linemen receiving punts. Balls were shot out of machines. Sophomore Geoff Mogus said that before his first attempt, coaches made him spin around several times.

"It's kind of hard," Mogus said.

But all things considered, they weren't bad. The current system simply fosters competition—whether that involves snagging punts or battling for starter's roles.

"Everyone's fighting for a position," sophomore Shane Mertz said. "It's doing great things for all of us."

Offensive line coach Adam Cushing faces a unique dynamic. He needs to replace three starters from 2012, but can work with his enthusiastic young core.

Brandon Vitabile, entering his third year as starting center, holds steady in the middle. The rest are shuffling positions during practice. Cushing tells the unit to improve one particular skill in each session. Those who impress the most will see the field, regardless of position.

"The five best guys are going to play," Mertz said. "Right now, it's just the evaluation process, with competition at every position. It doesn't really matter where you play because we move around."

The model is in place for this group to succeed. Mogus and Mertz both redshirted in 2011, when standouts Al Netter and Ben Burkett formed one of the most experienced fronts in the nation.

When the two left, many expected the line to struggle in their absence. But their characteristic leadership stayed in place. Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe, both seniors, set the example for younger players. They sparked Venric Mark to his breakout season and kept both featured quarterbacks intact. It resulted from hard work in these sorts of practice situations.

"Everything they did exuded leadership," Mertz said. "Even though they were established starters and all-Big Ten players, they were still getting better every day."

Mogus said he expects the group to fill the void left by Ward, Mulroe and Neal Deiters. The projected starting left guard played as a reserve last season, and stressed the benefits of his past experience.

"It's been really helpful," he said. "I know what to expect now."

Overall, it's easy to be bullish about this offensive line. Mogus reportedly bulked up to nearly 300 pounds. Mertz–who will compete with Paul Jorgensen for a starting tackle spot–looks like an imposing force at 6'8. Though spring ball is not the finest indicator of future performance, the new-look unit appears comfortable in every formation, including option sets.

Much of that begins with Vitabile, the unquestioned veteran. After his redshirt season, he immediately stepped into the starting center role. With experience on his side, he looks to bring the young unit up to speed.

"He's the rock of our offensive line," Mertz said. "He holds us all together. He's the established leader and we learn from him every day."

Mertz sat out the entirety of 2012 due to injuries. The Wildcats can't afford any more scratches this season—with their lack of depth and all. That refuses to dampen their enthusiasm.

"It's a great feeling to be able to practice every day and get back with these guys," Mertz said.

You can tell the offensive linemen are enjoying every minute, punt returns or otherwise.

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