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Northwestern Football Unit Breakdowns: Offensive Line

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Projected Starters

Left Tackle — Patrick Ward, Senior

After appearing in 12 games as a true freshman, Ward started every game at right tackle during his sophomore and junior years. Now, with the graduation of Al Netter, Ward will shift over to left tackle.

Left tackle will be an especially important position for Northwestern this year as the Wildcats break Kain Colter into the full-time starting role at quarterback. The offensive line in general had a disappointing spring and must do a better job of opening up holes in the run game and protecting Colter. The responsibility for the latter falls on Ward. However, Pat Fitzgerald has to feel good having an experienced player protecting his first-year starting quarterback.

Left Guard — Brian Mulroe, Senior

Mulroe made his first career start in the Outback Bowl following the 2009 season and started every game in 2010 and 2011, shifting to left guard four games into the 2010 season.

He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the Big Ten coaches and media and has a chance to earn even higher honors this year as a senior. He and Ward should form a solid left side of the line.

Center — Brandon Vitabile, Sophomore

Vitabile burst onto the scene last August after an impressive showing in fall camp. Four-year starter Ben Burkett shifted from center to right guard, allowing Vitabile to make the jump to a starting spot and start all 13 games at center as a redshirt freshman.

He should compete for all-conference honors in 2012 and has been named to the watch list for the Rimington Award, which is awarded annually to the nation’s best center.

Right Guard — Jack Konopka, Sophomore

Konopka appeared in all 13 games in 2011 as NU’s second-string superback and caught one pass for six yards during his true freshman season. However, he switched to offensive line after the season and he should fit in better there due to his 6-5, 285-pound frame.

Konopka was praised by Pat Fitzgerald and his teammates numerous times throughout the spring, and if he continues to improve this summer, he may earn a starting spot by the fall.

Right Tackle — Chuck Porcelli, Senior

After steadily increasing his role in the past two seasons appearing in nine games in 2010 and all 13 in 2011, Porcelli is ready to take on a starting role in 2012. He was listed as a left tackle during spring practice, but since that spot will almost certainly go to Patrick Ward, Porcelli will likely shift to right tackle.

There’s a chance redshirt freshman Shane Mertz could vie for the spot at right tackle, but NU will likely opt for experience — especially with the inexperienced Konopka possibly starting at right guard — and have Porcelli start on the right side.

The Backups 

Shane Mertz, OT, Redshirt Freshman

Mertz was nicknamed the “S.S. Mertz” by Pat Fitzgerald during spring practice due to his massive 6-8, 295-pound frame. Fitzgerald and the other linemen said Mertz was impressive during the spring. He definitely has a chance to earn some playing time and possibly fight for a starting spot this fall.

Geoff Mogus, OG, Redshirt Freshman

Mogus was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and redshirted his freshman season. He was praised by some of his teammates during the spring and could see the field as a second-string player.

Paul Jorgensen, OT, Sophomore

Jorgensen appeared in 11 games last year during his redshirt freshman campaign and couple fight for time as a second-string player at either tackle spot.

Neal Deiters, OG, Senior

Deiters was listed as a right guard during spring practice and after playing in all 13 games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, he played in eight games in 2011. He should receive playing time and could fill in for Konopka if NU is in need of experience on the right side.

Matt Frazier, C, Redshirt Freshman

Frazier was a three-star recruit in 2011 and redshirted last season. He will likely fight for the backup center job with Alex Pietrzak, but probably won’t see the field too often with Brandon Vitabile ahead of him.

The Others

Taylor Paxton, OG, Junior — Paxton hasn’t contributed much on offense during his three years on campus and may end up being the third string right guard behind Konopka and Deiters.

Alex Pietrzak, C, Redshirt Freshman — Pietrzak redshirted his freshman year and will likely be given the opportunity to compete against Frazier for the backup job. However, we project him as the third string center to start the season.

Hayden Baker, OG, Sophomore — A walk-on, Baker saw action in one game during his redshirt freshman season. He will primarily be a scout team player this year as well.

The Recruits

Adam DePietro. OT, 6-5, 270 — four-star, Lancaster (PA)

Eric Olson. OT, 6-6, 285 — three-star, Sudbury (MA)

Ian Park. OG, 6-4, 295 — three-star, Pittsburgh (PA)

Kenton Playko. OT, 6-5, 270 — three-star, Lewis Center (OH)

Concerns

Spring showed cause for concern for the offensive line, as it was dominated by the defensive line for much of the spring game and was an overall disappointment during spring practice.

The right side of the line will be a major question mark, as Konopka is talented, but young, and Porcelli is unproven. Ward is also unproven at left tackle, though he was solid on the right side.

Depth is also a concern, as the unit is full of redshirt freshmen and there isn’t much experience beyond the starting five.

Prognosis

The left side of the line should be very good, despite what happened in spring practice. Ward has the ability to develop into a solid left tackle and Mulroe and Vitabile are both proven players. The right side could struggle, but Konopka has the potential to develop into a three-year starter on the line.

Depth will be a concern so staying healthy is a must, and the starting five must show improvement throughout the summer. If the unit stays injury-free and lives up to its potential, it should do better than last year’s relatively disappointing season.