by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
This Northwestern team has a lot of experience and a lot of starters returning. That isn't the case on the offensive line. That isn't entirely true, since there are a lot of players returning who served significant time as backups last season, but there are only two starters coming back, and just one who will likely return to the position he played last season. The offensive line battle will be one of the top unit battles this spring, and while we won't know the starters until the fall, some things are starting take shape. Check out how things currently break down.
Returning starters: OT Jack Konopka, C Brandon Vitabile
Others returning: OT Paul Jorgensen, OT Shane Mertz, OT Eric Olson, OG Matt Frazier, OG Geoff Mogus, OG Hayden Baker, C Ian Park, OT Kenton Playko, OT Alex Pietrzak
Incoming recruits: OT Sam Coverdale, OG Blake King, C Tyler Lancaster, C Brad North
Biggest Spring Question: How does everything piece together?
The biggest question surrounding Northwestern's offensive line is, well, everything. This is the unit with the most turnover from last season, with just two starters returning and likely just one starter sticking to the same position he held last year. Three potential starters — Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen and Matt Frazier — are out of the spring, as well, meaning battles for starting spots won't be finished until well into fall camp.
However, lots of starter turnover doesn't necessarily mean a drop-off in production. Things could be a little shaky at first — a lot like last year, in fact — but NU has recruited the offensive line well and it has a number of young players ready to step into full-time roles, whether as a starter or a backup. Regardless of who starts, there will be a lot of rotation along the line this year. Let's break it down by position.
We start at center because it's by far the easiest position to figure out. Brandon Vitabile returns as the starter, while Ian Park will be his understudy. That's a good spot for Park, a redshirt freshman who will have a year to learn and gain experience under the veteran Vitabile.
Northwestern's other returning starter is Jack Konopka, who started most of last season at right tackle. However, as of now, Pat Fitzgerald said that he would likely switch over to the left side. That could potentially change, and since Konopka and fellow tackle Paul Jorgensen are out for the spring, we likely won't know until the fall. But for now, Konopka looks like the the most likely starter on the left side, at least at the beginning, because NU has a habit of putting its most experienced tackle on the left side.
The next three guys battling for the last starting spot and subsequent backup spots are Jorgensen, Shane Mertz and Eric Olson. Jorgensen and Mertz are both bigger than Konopka, and both have the size to switch over to the left side if they can prove themselves. Since Jorgensen is out, Mertz is starting on the left side right now, with Olson on the right. Based off of past experience and what we've seen in practice, our educated guess would be that it's Mertz or Jorgensen starting at right tackle, with the other one backing up Konopka on the left side. Olson looks like the backup right tackle for now. Also look out for redshirt freshman Kenton Playko, who likely won't reach the two-deeps to start the season, but could sneak in some playing time.
NU is without Matt Frazier this spring, so we won't get a good look at the guard battle until fall camp. This spring, the Wildcats have sophomore Geoff Mogus starting at left guard and redshirt freshman Adam DePietro — a four-star recruit last year — starting at right guard. Those guys could potentially move around, but keep in mind that Frazier played on the right side last year.
This battle is just as wide open as tackle, and like I said, we won't know a lot until camp. A lot can change. However, our projection would put Mogus as the starter on the left side, with Frazier and DePietro battling for the starting spot on the right side once Frazier is back from injury. That leaves Hayden Baker as the backup on the left side.
With all of these position battles, I really can't stress enough that nothing is set in stone, and that we'll probably change our projections before spring practice. This is just a way of giving you a rough idea of where the pieces to the puzzle currently stand. At both guard and tackle, we could se some guys change position depending on who is playing best in the fall, because Fitzgerald is far more concerned with getting his best players on the field than limiting them to just one side. We'll know a little bit more after the spring, but the bulk of the decisions about guard and tackle will come in the fall when the injured guys come back.
Our best guess at the depth chart
LT: Jack Konopka, Shane Mertz OR Paul Jorgensen
LG: Geoff Mogus, Hayden Baker
C: Brandon Vitabile, Ian Park
RG: Matt Frazier OR Adam DePietro
RT: Shane Mertz OR Paul Jorgensen, Eric Olson