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Northwestern Football Post Spring Unit Breakdowns: Offensive Line

Having wrapped up another slate of spring practices, it is time to revisit Northwestern’s position units in painstaking detail as they hit the weight room and finish spring quarter in advance of preseason workouts. We last dove into each position group after the bowl game, and spring practice – spotty and inconclusive as the visual evidence can be in this setting – occasions another thorough inquiry into depth chart happenings and position battles.

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Returning Starters: C Brandon Vitabile (Jr), T Jack Konopka (Jr)

Others Returning: G Geoff Mogus (So), G Matt Frazier (So), C Ian Park (RS Fr), T Alex Pietrzak (So), T Kenton Playko (RS Fr), T Eric Olson (RS Fr), T Shane Mertz (So), T Paul Jorgensen (Jr), G Hayden Baker (Jr)

Incoming Recruits: T Sam Coverdale, G Blake King, C/G Brad North

Depth Chart Projection:

LT – Jack Konopka, Shane Mertz or Paul Jorgensen

LG – Geoff Mogus or Matt Frazier, Hayden Baker

C – Brandon Vitabile, Ian Park

RG – Adam DePietro or Matt Frazier, Hayden Baker

RT – Shane Mertz or Paul Jorgensen, Eric Olson

Explaining the Depth Chart: 

Two spots on the offensive line are fairly straightforward. Jack Konopka started at right tackle last season and, with Patrick Ward graduating this offseason, will presumably move over to the left side. At center, Brandon Vitabile has been a rock of consistency for two consecutive seasons; All-Big Ten honors is very much on the table for Vitabile as he continues to show unflappable poise and consistency manning the center of the line.

There are three holes to fill (right tackle, left guard and right guard), and plenty of options to fill them. Having several key guys (including Konopka, tackle Paul Jorgensen and guard Matt Frazier) miss spring workouts complicates matters, because without exploring every possibility through practice competition, we just don’t know how they measure up against one another. Based off what we’ve seen in spring practice, combined with measured expectations for injured players’ performances upon returning this fall, it looks like redshirt freshman Adam DePietro and sophomore Geoff Mogus have seized temporary control of the guard spots, while sophomore Shane Mertz and junior Paul Jorgensen will remain deadlocked at right tackle until further notice.

Stock Up: Shane Mertz

For the offense itself, not having tackles Jorgensen and Konopka this spring didn’t allow for a complete assessment of depth chart specifics and current starters/reserves spots. It did give other players, players like Mertz, an opportunity to earn important reps with first teamers, and Mertz made the most of his opportunity.

If you watched Northwestern’s televised final spring practice, Mertz was impossible to miss. He was that hulking 6’8’’, 313-pound goliath holding down one of the tackle spots. Mertz’s size is definitely his greatest asset, but his quick feet and ability to counter a variety of pass-rushing moves are just as valuable at this level of competition. I watched Mertz get beat on quick speed bursts more than a few times this spring, but his quickness and technique steadily progressed over these past six weeks and he should enter camp with a strong claim to challenge Jorgensen for a starting spot at (right) tackle.

Stock Down: Matt Frazier

No one that participated in spring workouts did anything to noticeably “hurt” his stock, so I went with one of Northwestern’s lengthy list of spring injury report subjects. It’s impossible to hurt your chances without actually competing in drills, which is what makes this selection so tricky in the first place, but it’s what Frazier couldn’t do that might have pushed him back in the race for a starting guard spot this Fall.

In Frazier’s absence, redshirt freshman Adam DePietro – arguably the most highly-sought after offensive line recruit in Northwestern history, who held offers from Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, among others – stepped up and showed why he deserves every opportunity to not only challenge Frazier, but potentially steal his spot (not that Frazier was ever guaranteed a starting spot) before the season-opener. Again, this selection speaks more to DePietro’s apparent rise than anything Frazier did in particular. The pecking order at both guard spots will become clearer in Fall workouts, when DePietro and Frazier and Geoff Mogus and Hayden Baker can challenge one another in a competitive setting.

Position Battle To Watch: Right Tackle – Shane Mertz vs. Paul Jorgensen

His absence this spring doesn’t change the presumed inheritor of left tackle duties; that starting spot is Jack Konopka’s to lose. The other tackle spot is more interesting, and spring practice did nothing to resolve any of the mystery about one of Northwestern’s most important position battles. The Wildcats’ option attack requires tackles that can not only stand up pass-rushers and create a wall of protection, but also move into the second level and open up running lanes by barreling over oncoming defenders.

That is what coaches will be looking for when they ultimately decide on whether to start Mertz or Jorgensen at right tackle. Jorgensen was unavailable this spring, so it’s tough to get a true sense of where he stands vis-à-vis Mertz at this point in time. I will say this: Mertz looked strong, quick and, most of all, huge in workouts all spring long, and his steady performance did not hurt his chances. It will be interesting to see if Jorgensen can hold off the rising Mertz, or if the redshirt sophomore and winner of Saturday’s bat-spinning-hot-dog-eating contest prevails.

Biggest Offseason Question: Is Experience A Problem?

When a unit loses three starters (all seniors) and enters spring camp with unresolved starting spots, typically there is some cause for pause – how will the new bodies step in? Will continuity be disrupted? That kind of stuff. You can ask those questions about this offensive line, but in actuality, the better question goes a little something like this: can this offensive line be better than last year?

I should have answered the bolded question by now, but in case you needed any clarification, I am none too worried about experience holding this group back. In fact, the young talent and depth blossoming this spring and entering camp this fall gives the Wildcats more O-line flexibility and depth than I can remember. Coach Pat Fitzgerald reiterated this theme time and again during spring workouts, and the real product looks even more impressive. Three starters are gone, and that’s usually not the most ideal personnel development, but the replacements look ready to compete and thrive right away, if not improve and round into form over the course of the season. The future at offensive line is bright and we should see the tip of the iceberg in 2013.