Offensive line coach Adam Cushing proved his worth, as the unit recovered after losing two experienced players in Al Netter and Ben Burkett. Of course, the group helped propel Venric Mark to his incredible breakout season.
Mark has heard the questions for months. Can the group adjust without Neal Deiters, Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward? He's almost impatient to get out on the field; not for himself, but for the new talent.
"People keep asking about them: ‘Are they this? Are they that?'" Mark said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. "That's one thing I love about coming into a game: surprises."
Inexperience is not the only story. The two returners are guys with major upside. Brandon Vitabile–an extremely underrated junior–shows impressive leadership.
Jack Konopka, a converted superback, did admirable work at right tackle. Konopka set the standard for others, who hope to climb up the crowded depth chart.
"Konopka showed what he could do last year," Mark said. "Those last three positions are up for grabs, and we have people fighting for them."
It's really wide open. That's not an indictment of the team; they believe the roster includes several players who can ease the transition.
Without any provocation, Mark actually praised the incoming freshmen—a surprising comment. Though you would expect NU to redshirt all or almost all of these players, Mark said the group impressed him right away. And he's presumably one of the most important judges.
"Those freshmen came in ready," Mark said. "They're the right weight… They have the right mindset already. Theirs and my mindset are very compatible."
Throughout Media Days, players talked about the importance of development and learning schemes. Tyler Scott said that the mere shift to the film room is enough to encourage redshirting.
Regardless of whether those particular guys play in the early stages, there is reason to believe NU can recover from losing three starters.
On the recruiting trail, NU has hauled in several impressive players, knowing that a subpar offensive line can submarine a team's chances of success—especially when their definition of "success" means a Big Ten Championship run.