Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
The idea dawned on me during Northwestern’s first practice of the spring, was reinforced by passive depth chart scanning done as a follow-up to my conversation with freshman tackle Sam Coverdale earlier this week and shaped up perfectly for yet another random “offseason musings” topic of discussion: there is good reason to be excited about the future of the Wildcats’ offensive line.
Most early spring analyses of Northwestern from other media outlets seemed to have reach a quorum on something I don’t completely agree with. Northwestern lost three starters along its offensive line, the chorus goes, so pass protection will naturally degenerate into a mess of inexperience and unfamiliarity and early growing pains. This type of conventional wisdom roster turnover conclusion-drawing tends to work out more often than not – teams losing sturdy veterans, particularly along the offensive line, are looking at areas to “patch up” and have “question marks” and “depth issues.”
It was easy to make many of the same judgments with Northwestern’s line, it losing left tackle Patrick Ward and guards Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters to graduation this offseason, which makes it tempting, from afar, to lodge the same concerns about the Wildcats’ ability to adapt to losing more than half of its starters. My feeling on the matter, one borne out through recent recruiting trends and coach Pat Fitzgerald’s consistent praise is that, no, actually, the Wildcats will be fine along the offensive line and yes, indeed, the three new starters will pick up right where last year’s group left off, even raise the level of offensive line play to new heights.
Having this much confidence in an admittedly youthful group is sort of ambitious – which, yeah, ok. Fine. But if you look at the quality of youth stepping in this season, and the quality of recruiting talent flowing into the system, Northwestern’s offensive line is on the verge of becoming one of this team’s biggest strengths in relatively short order. For starters, this season mammoth tackle Shane Mertz and Paul Jorgensen (and to a lesser degree Eric Olson) will battle for the right tackle spot, while Adam DePietro and Ian Park will compete for playing time at the guard and center spots (DePietro’s chances of earning a starting guard spot are somewhat realistic; the best Park can do is seal up backup duty behind Brandon Vitabile), respectively.
But look beyond this season, beyond the three holes being filled by really talented players this fall. The 2013 class features three quality O-line pieces (Blake King, Sam Coverdale and Brad North), all of whom by this time next year will have entered the conversation for variously spaced depth chart battles. That’s more depth, and more top-to-bottom quality, than the Wildcats had at any point last season, and as Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff continue to make the O-line a main priority in recruiting, the composite strength and individual competition will breed an even more refined collective product.
This is a youth movement like no other on Northwestern’s roster, and the early returns on this young talent will hit or miss this season. I tend to believe in the former. I saw it throughout spring practice, heard it from Fitzgerald – who on the very first spring workout dished out, unprompted, a detailed appraisal of the line’s depth and newfound size, even with three projected starters or potential starters (Jack Konopka, Jorgensen and Matt Frazier) resigned to the sidelines – and envision it all coming together this season, and in future years, to grow into one of the Wildcats’ most consistent and deep position units.
If you blindly mistake lost starters and experience for downgraded performance – which is a fundamentally dumb premise in the first place, when you really think about it; what if the new players are just, you know, better? – Northwestern’s offensive line might seem like an urgent problem. My counter is simple: the replacements are just as talented, if not as experienced. The initial transitional period may not be quite as smooth as the consistency displayed throughout 2012, but only the most seasoned reserve units are prone to seamless starters duty integration. Minor early turbulence is just the cost of doing business.
For this year, and the next few years, Northwestern’s pass protecting corps will enjoy an abundance of depth and size and, to frame it in simpler terms, just a bunch of really big, strong, talented football players. That feels like a pretty safe way to move past losing three starters.