The wait is nearly over. At long last, after eight trying months, the 2013 college football season is upon us. In just 10 days, Northwestern will meet Cal in its primetime season opener. This last week and change can be excruciatingly slow, so to ease your anxiety, we’re rolling out 10 bold predictions, one each day, to lead you into August 31. Some of these may sound crazy (some of them won’t), and we probably won’t be looking back four months from now celebrating our foresight, but preseason sportspredictions aren’t meant to be perfect, anyway, and erring on the bold side is much more fun than playing it safe. With that said, let’s begin: the real stuff, the actual football, will be here in no time.
No. 2: This year’s offensive line will be even better than last year’s.
One of the reasons that Northwestern was able to implement so many new offensive plays with their odd quarterback system last year was because the offensive line was able to hold steady in front and give the rest of the offense time to work out the kinks.
The line gave up only 16 sacks in 2012, the best in the Big Ten, which is even more remarkable given the fact that half of the time they were protecting a quarterback in Kain Colter who liked to run and often played outside of the pocket.
And their resume doesn’t end there. The 2012 line opened holes for the Big Ten’s fifth-leading rusher, Venric Mark. Talk to any of the best running backs in the country and they will tell you that in front of any good rusher is a great offensive line.
Needless to say, the line was vital to NU’s exciting 10-3 season.
But that was last year. Starters Patrick Ward, Neal Deiters and Brian Mulroe are gone. Both guard spots and a tackle spot were up for grabs to start camp. With expectations through the roof for the Cats this season, the offensive line will be a vital component toward reaching those lofty goals.
I think they’re up to the challenge.
The two most important positions on the line are filled by proven, experienced, game-tested veterans: junior Brandon Vitabile will reprise his role at center as the silent leader of the offense after starting every game last season. Coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke highly of Vitabile this fall, praising his increased leadership and his incredible knowledge of the game. He’s an ideal candidate to anchor a line with a lot of young, raw talent.
Junior Jack Konopka, who also started all 13 games last season, will switch from right tackle to left tackle to protect the blindside.
Then come the unknowns.
Junior Paul Jorgensen beat out Shane Mertz for the left tackle spot, but both looked really good in practice. The intense competition between the two had a positive effect on both, and Jorgensen admitted that although they were competing, they were also pushing each other to get better. Jorgensen may have the spot for now but he knows that Mertz isn’t far behind, which should continue to motivate him throughout the season.
Redshirt freshman Ian Park somewhat surprisingly won the right guard spot. Originally it seemed like he would back up Vitabile at center, but if all goes right for the Wildcats, Vitabile won’t come off the field very often. Park is too talented to sit on the bench all season.
Finally, in what was not guaranteed but fairly certain, sophomore Geoff Mogus will start at left guard after performing well in both spring and fall camps.
Those are the starting five, and it’s a pretty impressive group even with the limited experience. The entire unit performed well in camp; no one truly lost a starting job, others just stepped up and won them. The back-ups—Mertz, Adam DePietro, Matt Frazier, Hayden Baker, and Eric Olsen—did well in camp and will keep the pressure on the starting five throughout the year. It may take a week to gel but the experience and leadership of Vitabile and Konopka will ease the transition for the promising newcomers, and this group will come together to have a great season.