"Everyone's fighting for a position. It's doing great things for all of us." -- Shane Mertz
"He's the rock of our offensive line. He holds us all together. He's the established leader and we learn from him every day." -- Mertz on Brandon Vitable
As expected, things started shakily for the offensive line this spring. Losing three starters to graduation and down injured tackle Jack Konopka, the O-line frequently left Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian rattled throughout the first few practice sessions. Runs were stuffed at the line as well, although that was more of an indication of how much Northwestern's linebackers have been progressing.
Eager to establish a more consistent passing game as well as a pressure-heavy defense, early scrimmages featured playcalling that was far from favorable for the offensive line. Passing-down situations with extra rushers is no easy task for a unit suddenly thrown together, and Pat Fitzgerald noted that he wanted his O-line to fail at first to encourage the learning process.
The offensive line began taking massive strides as practices rolled on, culminating in standout performances at the Wildcats' open practice and offense/defense scrimmage. Vitable has been a strong leader while Mertz and Geoff Mogus paced a very strong left side. In the open practice, the only sacks allowed were due to excellent coverage in the secondary.
What we're thinking
It's the clear-cut biggest question for the offense. Northwestern's fast-paced, efficient running game was largely contingent on room up front, and without time in the pocket, Trevor Siemian won't stand a chance.
Still, fans should absolutely trust Vitable, who received glowing praise from Fitz, Mogus, Mertz and Dan Vitale this spring. Despite lacking starts, Konopka and potential right tackle Paul Jorgensen are juniors who have been with the team under greats Al Netter, Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe. Mogus had a strong spring, and while the jury's out on right guards Matt Frazier and Adam DePietro, this offensive line could definitely surprise people come fall.
Guard play won't be as vital to an offense that attacks the edges on handoffs, screens and options. The linemen still have a busy summer of two-a-days to gel together, and nonconference play certainly won't pose as formidable a challenge as defenses like Ohio State, Michigan State or Wisconsin.
Northwestern's put up a consistent O-line last season under Adam Cushing, so despite losing three starters, there's no reason to expect a huge dropoff from last year. And with speedsters like Colter and Venric Mark, a little less time up front doesn't necessarily equal disaster.