by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Northwestern’s offensive line is lopsided, as far as experience goes that is. The left side of the line returns Patrick Ward at tackle and Brian Mulroe at guard, while center Brandon Vitabile is back, as well. That’s 65 combined starts.
The number of starts for the right side of the line? Zero.
Sophomore Jack Konopka will take over for Ward, who shifted from right tackle to left tackle this year, and fifth-year senior Chuck Porcelli will get the start in place of Ben Burkett. It’s a strange look for the unit — very experienced on one end and completely new on the other — but Pat Fitzgerald said the knowledge that comes with experience isn’t as lopsided as it seems.
“We’ve got a lot of experience as far as on the left side and obviously that’s trickled to the right just through experience through camp,” he said.
Depending on how you define experience, Porcelli could even fit that mold. While he hasn’t seen a lot of game action, he knows the offense well, which can help him avoid the mistakes younger players make in their early starts.
“Chuck’s been around forever,” Konopka said. “He knows the playbook inside and out.”
But even as a fifth-year senior, Porcelli is still learning. He prepared for this year at tackle, but was switched to guard in camp, paving the way for Konopka to move to tackle and helping NU get its best five linemen on the field.
“At first it was a little different,” Porcelli said. “I have someone on the right and left of me at all times, but it’s still our offense. Our coaches like us to know the entire scheme of what’s going on with our “O,” so knowing the plays, it wasn’t too bad.”
Porcelli’s ability to adapt to the change helped NU put Konopka in the best spot for him to achieve. Konopka was recruited to NU as a tackle, but switched to superback to help depth after injuries. After the spring, he switched to guard and now is back to tackle.
“I think (guard and tackle) are both difficult in their own sense,” Konopka said. “With guard you have those big guys like (NU defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt) right up on top of your face, but out on tackle you’ve got some pretty quick guys out there who can get to the quarterback in a hurry.”
Konopka was a tight end during his high school days, and while he was too big to play superback in college, the athleticism he learned as a tight end makes him a better fit for tackle. After three position changes, he’s back to where he feels the most comfortable.
“I think guard was probably the roughest small patch from there, but as soon as they moved me out to tackle I felt a lot more comfortable” he said. “I was able to use my feet and my athleticism a little bit more.”
That comfort will be tested Saturday, as Konopka and Porcelli will see the most game action they’ve ever seen in an NU uniform. However, the offseason has helped them prepare for the game, even if they don’t have the on-field experience to go along with it.
“Jack Konopka and I, we’ve been working together all offseason because originally, going into the season, we thought we’d both be competing for tackle, so we did a lot of work together preparing for tackle, but now that we’re guard and tackle our communication is better than it’s ever been,” Porcelli said. “All summer, every drill we did, every workout, (the whole offensive line) did everything together. We created a very strong bond and we’re ready to go.”
Fitzgerald will be playing new starters in a number of positions against Syracuse, not just on the offensive line. While it’s a daunting task for inexperienced players to start the season on the road against an FBS opponent, Fitzgerald believes his players can gain experience in practice similar to what they learn in games, and he hopes that stands true for the right side of his offensive line.
“We believe in what they’ve done through camp and look forward to watching them go out and perform,” he said. “Through Chuck’s experience, being here as long as he has, I think it’s a lot of confidence if there’s a question, or if Jack has a question about something he’ll look right over and we get the communication, so I feel great about that group.”