This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the offensive line.
Key Losses: OT Pat Ward, OG Brian Mulroe
Returning Starters: OT Jack Konopka, C Brandon Vitabile
Other Key Returning Players: OT Shane Mertz, OT Paul Jorgensen, OG Geoff Mogus, OG Adam DePietro, OG Matt Frazier
Why 2012 Was Better: Heading into the 2012 season, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the offensive line. The group struggled to come together at first, but by the end of the season it turned into one of Northwestern's best offensive line units in recent memory. It was a very athletic line, which made it successful in run blocking and paving the way for Venric Mark to have a breakout season.
Pat Ward excelled in his move from right to left tackle, while Brian Mulroe showed improvement in his senior season. It's tough to replace that much experience, and while the 2013 group is talented, it could take awhile for that talent to come together as the players gain experience. The 2013 line undoubtedly has more upside, but the 2012 line could end up being more consistent.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: It's always tough to replace experience, but considering all the depth and talent coming into the offensive line in 2013, it's tough to see this group not being better in the long run. Like last year, it could take some time for the unit to come together, but that's worth it for the long-term rewards. Jack Konopka steadily improved throughout last year, and he's likely to switch to left tackle to start the year. However, Shane Mertz and Paul Jorgensen both have the ability to eventually switch to the left side if Konopka fits better on the right.
Losing Mulroe at guard hurts, but there is plenty of talent coming up behind him. Matt Frazier saw a lot of playing time last year, and he'll be in the mix for a guard spot, along with up-and-comers Geoff Mogus and Adam DePietro. All three of them are talented, and they'll form a strong interior along with experienced center Brandon Vitabile. Athleticism will be a key with the whole line. Because NU employs so much zone blocking, it needs athletic linemen who can get upfield and block for the run game. This group has that, and it will need to be at its best to help pave more holes for Kain Colter and Venric Mark.
This Year or Last Year: This Year
This might be the second closest of all the unit (behind the defensive line, which we listed as a toss-up). There's definitely the possibility that last year's group could end up being better than last year's, considering all the experience that the Wildcats lost. However, there is too much talent on this year's group for it to struggle for too long. Expect the 2013 group to have a similar progression to the 2012 version. There will be some kinks to work out at first, but as players settle in, the unit will rapidly improve.
There's more upside on the 2013 line than the 2012 one, and initially, the right side might be better than it was last year. In 2012, the left side was solid from the get-go, while the right side struggled to adjust. This year, there is more experience and talent on the right side than there was last year, but the left side will be a little less experienced than last year. That means the whole unit should progress together, rather than one side having to play catch-up.
If you compare the 2012 line in December to the 2013 line in August, the 2012 line might be better. However, by the time December rolls around this year, the offensive line should be just as good as, or better than last year's version. There's just too much talent there for things to not come together.