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InsideNU Debate: Which of Northwestern's Position Groups Has the Brightest Future?

The ultimate motherload of Northwestern football preview content will begin to trickle out over the next two months. Today, we’re extending our analytical focus beyond this season. We’re looking at the future – at which of Northwestern’s position units has the best chance of remaining (or becoming) successful in the next few years. An exercise like this requires marrying what we know about Northwestern’s verbally committed and signed players – or what we think we know, which, in recruiting, are two entirely different things – with our knowledge of this season’s roster. Let us know which position group you feel is in the best position going forward; make your case for a unit we didn’t choose, or offer a new angle of debate we didn’t previously consider. Well, with that:


Offensive line

There are a lot of people who seem to be down on Northwestern's offensive line this year, due to inexperience and youth. I'm not one of those people. While I think the unit could take some time to come together, it should be quite good by the end of the season. But regardless of the offensive line's 2013 prospects, it's tough to be down on the future of a group that seems well positioned to be among the Big Ten's best for the foreseeable future.

NU has built up a tremendous combination of talent and depth in recent years — it all starts with recruiting — and this year's young group is just the first step in a long line of talent that will be rotating through the Wildcats' trenches in the next few years. Right now, the focus is on 2013, but the 2014 line will be one of the best in the Big Ten, assuming everyone can stay healthy. Nobody leaves after the 2013 season, which features a number of proven players:

Tackle — Jack Konopka is a proven player on the right side, and while he'll make a move to the left, he's perfectly capable of playing there. Opposite him, Shane Mertz and Paul Jorgensen will battle it out for a starting job. Mertz, in particular, has the ability to shift to the left side and could do so if NU's coaches decide they like Konopka better on the right.

Guard — There are lots of battles here, all from relatively unproven — to varying degrees — but talented players. Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier and Adam DePietro will all be staples on the line for the next few years.

Center — Brandon Vitabile will likely be a finalist — at the very least a semifinalist — for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's best center. He has two more season in Evanston and has a capable potential backup this year in Ian Park.

Those groups will only get better over the next two years, but even after players like Vitabile and Konopka leave after 2014, the future still looks bright. Kenton Playko and Eric Olson will both have time to get their feet wet as backups this season at tackle, and they'll be seasoned players by the time they are expected to play major roles with the team. The young guys at guard are being thrown in there a little earlier, but NU has plenty of options there.

In the last two recruiting classes, NU has built on its depth even more. Sam Coverdale, Tyler Lancaster, Brad North and Blake King all have solid credentials heading into their true freshman seasons, while Tommy Doles and Blake Hance both have a number of solid offers. Recruits don't always pan out, but the number of high-caliber linemen heading into the program has to be encouraging for the Wildcats. If that trend continues, NU will be set at offensive line for a long, long time.

- Kevin Trahan

Running back

The “future” is a deceptive term in this context. For the purposes of this argument, the future does include what happens this season, and on that count, choosing running backs was a huge win. The Wildcats fielded the Big Ten’s fourth best rushing attack at 4.93 yards per carry last season, and the backfield already looks in better shape this season. Arguably Northwestern’s most valuable player from 2012, Venric Mark, returns to the position with at least another 1,000 yards left in the tank. Senior tailback and criminally underrated backfield complement Mike Trumpy will give it one final go as a Wildcat (people tend to forget this: by backup running back standards, Trumpy has few equals in this league. His 106-yard performance against Boston College in relief of a banged-up Mark is a perfect example of how useful a reliable second runner can be). Treyvon Green looked better in spring practice than he did all last season, and could be on track for a rebound year. Redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley will add new elements to the rushing attack.

The running backs will be good this season. But for Mark missing a huge chunk of games with an injury – and even in that scenario, Northwestern has the depth to manageably accommodate – I can’t picture a scenario where the rushing attack isn’t at least as productive (or at least very close) as it was a year ago. The Wildcats have their backfield in excellent condition heading into 2013.

Looking further ahead into out futuristic discussion, we come to 2014, where Northwestern will have every running back currently committed to the Wildcats available for game action. There are two qualifiers I can’t ignore: 1) yes, any of Northwestern’s 2014 commits could renege on their verbals; 2) no, not all of these players will play in their true freshman seasons. Most of them probably won’t, actually. But even if none of the players slotted to play running back from the 2014 class make it on the field in their true freshman seasons, the Wildcats have a number of backfield threats to roll out nonetheless. Jones, Buckley (who, given the logjam at running back, his history as a high school quarterback and his overall versatile skill set, might work best as a hybrid slot/Denard Robinson-type “offensive weapon” at some point), Xavier Menifield, Warren Long and the possibility of Godwin Igwebuike sounds like a well-resourced, powerful, multifaceted running backs corps. That group alone would function smoothly within Northwestern’s spread attack.

Even so, the biggest thing Northwestern’s running back corps has going for it down the road is the 2014 recruiting class. Again, a caveat: it is entirely possible the running backs the Wildcats have commitments from in 2014 aren’t nearly as good as their recruiting rankings say they are. But if we’re looking ahead to the future, I’ll air on the side of scouting consensus and discount the potential for a recruiting “bust,” if you will. Where were we? Ah yes, 2014, right – Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson, two of the Wildcats’ more highly-rated commitments of the past few seasons, will be eligible to compete for a spot on the running back depth chart. (As will Gaithersburg, Maryland product Solomon Vault, although his future is more likely vested somewhere in the receiving corps).

The opportunity to redshirt both, contingent upon whether the already-rostered backs need any more backfield help, could ultimately lead Pat Fitzgerald and staff to push the pause button on their eligibility tickers and move them into the rotation one year later. If they do sit out their true freshmen seasons, then Northwestern’s promising future at running back can be interpreted as a more far-reaching proclamation. If they play right away (or only one of them does), the backfield could get the young jolt it needs to merit this lofty claim sooner rather than later.

Both situations leave the running backs in excellent shape going forward, and if Northwestern can keep landing talented backs on the recruiting trail, this position will quickly become a continuously auspicious proposition. The future will have no timeframe, in other words.

- Chris Johnson