By: Tim Hackett

mertz
Shane Mertz (number 70) and the Wildcat offensive line got off to a fast start last year against Stanford, but look to stay healthy and take the next step in 2016. Photo credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Unit Capsule:

  1st String 2nd String 3rd String Departures
Left Tackle Blake Hance (R-SO) Tommy Doles (R-SO) Adam Lemke-Bell (R-FR) Geoff Mogus
Left Guard Connor Mahoney (SR) Jared Thomas (R-FR) Sam Coverdale (JR)  
Center Brad North (R-JR) Ian Park (SR) J.B. Butler (R-SO)  
Right Guard Shane Mertz (SR) J.B. Butler (R-SO) Ben Oxley (R-SO) Matt Frazier
Right Tackle Eric Olson (SR) Ben Oxley (R-SO) Graham Bullmore (JR) Adam DePietro

 

It always amazes me that the position group with the most physically noticeable players is the one that is most easily overlooked. Last year, the Wildcat offensive line struggled, allowing 29 sacks (fourth-most in the Big Ten) and contributing to an offense that ranked dead last in the conference at 327 yards per game. Justin Jackson rushed for over 1,400 yards despite running behind an o-line that never could field a consistent lineup – guys kept shuffling in and out of the starting five due to performance, and, more frequently, injury. Losing three seniors for this year hurts, but Northwestern knows what it will be like to play without Mogus, DePietro and Frazier in 2016 because all three were hurt at some point in 2015. The one good thing that comes from last season’s injuries is the experience younger linemen received, most notably Blake Hance, who performed fairly well as a replacement for Mogus protecting Clayton Thorson’s blindside.

I feel that Hance and Eric Olson have earned their spots on the outside thanks to solid performances last year. Shane Mertz and Connor Mahoney return at guard and should reclaim their starting spots, leaving the biggest question mark at center. Ian Park started eight straight games at the position in 2015 before Brad North took back over for the final four contests, and I’ve pegged North to get the starting nod just like he did for Game One last season. But Park could very easily find his way into the starting five as the season progresses if any of the interior linemen struggle or get injured. J.B. Butler got a fair amount of playing time last season as well, and can play multiple positions. Should one of the tackles struggle, I fully expect to see Tommy Doles finally step in and contend for the spot.

Upside:

Nowhere to go but up, right? The experience gained from last year plus better health this year could lead to a much more successful season for the biggest B1G Cats. A better offensive line would do wonders for an often-anemic Northwestern offense: it would cement Jackson as one of the nation’s most productive backs, aid in Thorson’s progression as a college quarterback, and provide Thorson more time to find open receivers.

Downside:

We said last year that this unit couldn’t afford injuries (and we were right), and that seems just as applicable to this season, especially on the outside. Outside of Butler, and, of course, Park, none of the reserves have any meaningful playing experience, and another season of an injury-riddled O-Line would likely mean another season of an offense that struggles to really ever get going.

Key Player:

Blake Hance. By far the youngest starter, he has the most to prove at a critical position. Since the tackle depth is so thin, too many Hance missteps may force Pat Fitzgerald to call upon the even less experienced Doles. North, Mertz and Mahoney will also be under the microscope, as Park has the ability to play multiple positions and could enter the starting lineup as a center or a guard at any time.

In a Sentence:

Thanks to a decent amount of talent and experience, success for the offensive line, and for the offense as a whole, is a possibility, but is far from a certainty.

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