Northwestern Offensive Line Preview

Former WNUR Sports Director Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) previews the 2013 Northwestern Wildcats offensive line, a unit that will need to replace three starters after a productive 2012.

Cal Sport Media via AP Photo

Cal Sport Media via AP Photo

There are a lot of units you can point to for helping Northwestern win ten games last year. Venric Mark and the running backs brought explosiveness to the offense, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined to exploit the varying weaknesses of opposing defenses, and the run defense bottled up opposing offenses to the tune of only 3.8 yards per rush. But this discussion starts and ends with the offensive line.
Last year, the “big cats” – as they affectionately called themselves – only allowed 16 sacks the entire season. This was a year after allowing 43, the fourth highest total in the nation that year. Yeah, I know, stats are for losers, but that’s significant.

The team averaged 225.5 rushing yards per game with 31 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. Mark’s one-cut running style is perfect for the zone blocking scheme, but the team had success even when Mark missed time. When Mark left the game due to injury against Boston College, Mike Trumpy broke through for 106 yards on 16 carries. Tyrus Jones added some solid performances at the end of the season, as well. The fact that Brian Mulroe was the only lineman to be named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten by either the coaches or media is a joke.
Despite last year’s success, many have pointed to the offensive line as a possible downfall for the 2013 product. This seems like the easy choice as the line is losing three starters – Mulroe, left tackle Patrick Ward and right guard Neal Deiters – as well as Chuck Porcelli who saw significant action at right guard and would occasionally rotate in at right tackle. That said, it would be misguided at best to think the big uglies will lack depth this year, as Inside NU’s Kevin Trahan has previously pointed out.

One of the two returners for the line is two-year starting center Brandon Vitabile. Vitabile was the team’s Offensive Player of the Game against Illinois (barely beating out Bo Cisek) and Offensive Big Playmaker of the Game against Minnesota. He also recovered a Mark fumble and advanced it five yards, giving him five rushing yards on zero attempts. Can Braxton Miller say that? Naaah, bruh. #Vitabile4Heisman. Pat Fitzgerald said even before the 2012 season that Vitabile had a chance to be “one of the best we’ve ever had play here.” No pressure, though.

The other returner is Jack Konopka, a guy who played superback as a true freshman before moving back to the line for his sophomore campaign. As a true junior, Konopka will most likely follow in the footsteps of Ward and move from right tackle to the left side. Ward’s play improved significantly after the transition, and line coach Adam Cushing would probably go ape-poo if Konopka could do the same. Already a mauling run-blocker, progression from Konopka in his kick step for pass protection would help ease the minds of both Siemian and Colter.

The other three spots are pretty much up for grabs. The seemingly obvious leader at right tackle is Paul Jorgensen, whose touchdown against Illinois last year gave those of the mildly doughy physique (uh, me) everywhere a reason to get up in the morning. Jorgensen’s 6’6″, 295-pound build give him the size to start at tackle in Northwestern’s zone system, but, as evidenced by that previously-referenced touchdown grab, dude has the athleticism, too.

At guard, the leaders at the end of the year last year appeared to be Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier, both of whom saw decent action on special teams as redshirt freshmen. The person that could give them a run for their money is Adam DePietro, a redshirt freshman who was ranked as the tenth best guard in the nation by out of high school, earning him a four-star rating. As he showed with Vitabile in his redshirt freshman season, Fitz isn’t afraid to bump an upperclassmen if he thinks a younger guy is more deserving. The battle for the two starting guard spots is right up there as one of the most intriguing heading into Kenosha alongside the battles at defensive tackle, end and safety.

Looking back to the start of 2012, the team entered the season with two new starters, and a lot of question marks surrounded Ward after a disappointing first three years in the program. Cushing coached the unit up to being one of Northwestern’s best in recent memory. There are a lot of talented, young bodies looking for playing time. I wouldn’t bet money against Cushing producing a solid line again to help spring Mark, Colter and Co. for another explosive season.

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