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Time to Step Up: Jack Konopka

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The discrete components that mix an mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

"Time to Step Up" is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.


Jack Konopka

The right side of the line was easy. You’re usually facing an opposing team’s second pass-rusher*, the quarterback is much more aware of any oncoming pressure, and if you make a mistake, what’s the worst thing that could happen? A rushed throw? An assisted backfield takedown, wherein the quarterback simply decides, out of sheer desperation, to give himself up in his own backfield before that bull-rushing defensive end smashes him across the head?

It’s a lot more complicated than that. Konopka was playing his first full season on the offensive line after working out at superback in 2011. The transition – with Konopka’s natural athleticism and quick feet – went better than anyone could have reasonably predicted. Konopka started every game at right tackle, grew with every early-season lapse or botched protection and by the end of the season, had evolved into a truly reliable pass protector.

It didn’t hurt that Konopka made his offensive line debut at right tackle, that Patrick Ward handled the more demanding left side with metronomic proficiency, because I don’t think the then-true sophomore would have been ready. In 2013, he doesn’t really have a choice, because unless an unforeseen training camp development determines otherwise, Konopka will be your week 1 starting left tackle. This is different. This is responsibility personified.

Compared to last offseason’s position switch, from a skill position (superback) to an, uh, not-skilled (?) one (offensive line), this year’s move across the line won’t require anywhere near as many novel adjustments or challenging skill-building experiences. Konopka can take all the tricks and skills he developed last season, and apply them to the other side of the line. It’s a linear move; not a complete transposition of technique and basic operation. The only difference is, the defensive ends he’s going up against will be some of the best players in the conference, if not the country. And if he happens to miss a block, or trip over his own feet, or get bullrushed by Deion Barnes (which, well, life goes on) the end result won’t be as relatively innocuous as it would were those same mistakes made on the right side. If Konopka screws up, Kain Colter gets piledriven into the turf, probably loses the football, maybe breaks a rib or three, and potentially turns the outcome of a game.

The repercussions of Konopka’s performance (or lack thereof) this year are greater – that’s the biggest difference. His spring practice injury didn’t look or sound like anything serious to worry about – Konopka should be fine by training camp. Having already played the same basic position one year earlier, Konopka should accept the level-up in responsibility with poise and unfettered aplomb.

There’s no doubt the stakes are higher, and Konopka will need to step up to fully embrace them.

*This theory has been thrown under great scrutiny in recent years. ProFootballFocus, per their typically excellent visually-aided analysis, plunged into the mythologized left-right tackle axioms of the modern game. Really interesting stuff.