Position Preview: Offensive Line
By John Volk
Northwestern’s offensive line was a bright spot for an offense that didn’t shine much in 2019. Anchored by left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Jared Thomas, the line kept the carousel of quarterbacks upright while paving the way for Mick McCall’s run-first scheme. Over the final five games of the season, the unit allowed multiple sacks in a game only once, evidence of growth heading into 2020.
The O-line should be the strength of Northwestern’s offense again this year, returning four of the five core starters from 2019 while adding four-star tackle Peter Skoronski. Thomas is the lone departure, having graduated last spring. He went undrafted and remains available for a pro contract.
Here’s what the offensive line should look like in 2020:
Left Tackle: Rashawn Slater
Slater is arguably the best player on the roster. He broke out at left tackle in 2019 after spending the previous two seasons at right tackle. Slater started 11 games, allowed no sacks and 1 quarterback hit. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 41st best player in college football and as the second best returning Power-Five offensive tackle.
The left side of the line should be locked down again in 2020 as Slater returns for his senior season. While he doesn’t have prototypical length for a tackle, his footwork is among the best in college football. He quickly sets his blocks in pass protection and is virtually impossible to beat off the line.
Despite being snubbed in the All-Big Ten awards last year, don’t be surprised if his name is called early in next year’s NFL Draft.
Left Guard: Nik Urban
Helping Slater on the left side of Northwestern’s offensive line will be senior guard Nik Urban. Urban started all 12 games in 2019 and was a reliable force in the run game. In particular, Urban shined against Illinois as the Wildcats rushed for 383 yard, consistently opening holes in the Illini defensive line.
He has struggled at times in pass protection, but as new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian will presumably stay run-heavy, Urban is a reliable player to have on the inside.
Center: Sam Gerak
Sam Gerak started every game at right guard for Northwestern last year, but with the loss of Thomas, Gerak will most likely slide over to take his spot at center. Gerak played center in high school and was ranked the country’s sixth best center prospect of his class by ESPN.
He redshirted his first year with Northwestern and saw limited playing time in 2018, but he emerged as a reliable interior lineman last year. His pass protection and run blocking greatly improved over the course of the season, and he should be able to continue that growth as he moves back to his natural position at center.
Right Guard: Sam Stovall
The right side of the offensive line figures to be much bigger question mark than the left side. There is no clear player to take over at right guard with Gerak most likely moving to center. The leading candidates are sophomores Sam Stovall and Charlie Schmidt. Stovall started one game at right tackle last year, the season finale at Illinois, after starter Gunnar Vogel’s season ending injury against Purdue and Schmidt saw his only Northwestern game action in the same game.
I’ll give the edge to Stovall based on overall in-game reps, but don’t be surprised if Schmidt takes this spot. Either one of these guys could also move to center if the coaching staff decides early in the season they want Gerak back at guard.
Right Tackle: Gunnar Vogel
Right tackle projects to be the most interesting position on the line heading into 2020. Vogel took on the bulk of the responsibilities there last season before the aforementioned injury sidelined him for the last three games. While not the dominant tackle Slater is on the other side of the line, Vogel is certainly a serviceable lineman with plenty of experience.
What makes this spot interesting is Skoronski, Northwestern’s most touted recruit this year. In a normal offseason I would expect Skoronski to challenge Vogel for the starting job right away, maybe moving Vogel inside. However, with the restrictions of COVID-19, it could take more time for Skoronski to take on a starting role. It’s possible he could redshirt this year, but given that both Slater and Vogel are seniors, I would imagine Northwestern wants Skoronski to get as much in-game experience as possible.
Assuming Vogel is completely healthy in the fall, he should be the one starting at right tackle, but look for Skoronski to take over as the season progresses.
The Bottom Line
With the unprecedented circumstances of the 2020 college football season, experience is at more of a premium than ever. Northwestern’s offensive line has experience and plenty of it. With a star in Slater and reliable linemen to his right, the solid line we saw in 2019 should take another step forward.