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2014 spring offensive line recap: was 2013 a transition season?

Returning starters: OT Jack Konopka (Sr.), OT Paul Jorgensen (Sr.), OG Geoff Mogus (Jr.), OG Matt Frazier (Jr.), C Brandon Vitabile (Sr.)

Others returning: OT Shane Mertz (Jr.), OT Eric Olson (So.), OG Hayden Baker (Sr.), OG Adam DePietro (So.), OG Ian Park (So.), OT Kenton Playko (So.), OT Sam Coverdale (RS Fr.), OT Graham Bullmore (RS Fr.), OG Zack Guritz (RS Fr.), OG Blake King (RS Fr.), OG Brad North (RS Fr.)

Incoming recruits: Tommy DolesBlake Hance

Depth chart projection

OT – Paul Jorgensen, Shane Mertz
OG – Geoff Mogus, Kenton Playko
C – Brandon Vitabile, Hayden Baker
OG – Matt Frazier, Adam DePietro
OT – Eric Olson, Jack Konopka

Explaining the depth chart 

Offensive line was one of Northwestern’s worst positions last season. The group failed to adequately protect quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and it struggled to open up holes for the running backs. Perhaps the biggest culprit was Konopka. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior seemed to regress in his second season starting at tackle, and it looks like Konopka’s poor play could cost him his starting spot. He lined up with the second unit at spring practices, with senior Jorgensen filling his spot at left tackle. Sophomore Olson looked good taking first-team reps at right tackle, while fourth-year starter Vitabile and the two guards who started last season, Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus, manned the interior.

Something to keep in mind over the next few months is the possibility that Konopka could win back his starting spot. He lined up with the second team during the spring, but Konopka has proven himself a capable starter. At the very least, he could push Olson for the starting right tackle spot. DePietro started one game last season, against Michigan State, and could push for playing time. If the depth chart holds as is, Northwestern will have a ‘veteran’ offensive line, with the exception of Olson, who has yet to start a college game.

Stock up: Paul Jorgensen

After starting all 12 games at right tackle last season, Jorgensen will switch over to the left side in 2014. Much like Northwestern’s offensive line as a whole, Jorgensen had an up-and-down season, but he was good more often than not, and after a strong spring he should be ready to play the demanding left tackle spot. Northwestern had to beat out Michigan State and Stanford, among other programs, to land Jorgensen out of DeWitt High School (Mich.); the Wildcats’ commitment appears to be paying off. While the interior of Northwestern’s offensive line looks solid, it remains to be seen whether the tackles can do a better job than they did last season.

Jorgensen proved he can play the right side, but how will he fare against better pass rushers on the left side? That question feels even more important this season, as Northwestern doesn’t have the luxury of a mobile quarterback capable of evading oncoming blitzers. Jorgensen has played well enough over the past year, during the season and in spring workouts, to earn the starting spot (at least temporarily) at one of the most important positions on the field. Now he has to prove he deserved it.

Stock down: Jack Konopka

Konopka’s first season at left tackle did not go as well as Northwestern hoped. He played well enough at right tackle during the Wildcats’ 10-win, 2012 season that coaches saw fit to move him to the other side. Given the other candidates (or lack thereof) for the left tackle spot, this seemed like a reasonable decision. Perhaps it was not. Konopka regularly got beat by opposing pass rushers, and were it not for Colter’s mobility, his faults would have been even more glaring. Konopka was appropriately demoted to the second unit, replaced by promising redshirt freshman Olson. Now Konopka finds himself in a place few thought he’d be two seasons ago: looking up at someone else on the depth chart.

The silver lining here is that the strides Northwestern has made on the recruiting trail have created a situation where a multi-year starter lost his spot to a player who has yet to start a college game. Olson, who received scholarship offers from Virginia and Michigan, among others, is talented and it appears he has a bright future with the Wildcats. But if Konopka plays well enough in preseason camp, it would not be surprising if he moves to the top of the depth chart. Konopka was selected for the stock down section for good reason: he was bad in 2013. He earned this. Should we decide to use the same classifications to wrap up training camp, however, you may see Konopka’s name where Jorgensen’s is right now. Konopka is good enough to repair his ‘stock,’ in other words. Will he? Maybe. Maybe not.

Position battle: Right tackle

I have mentioned the possibility that Konopka could win back his starting spot in previous sections, so I will keep this brief. The starting right tackle spot could be up for grabs – and when I say up for grabs, I mean there’s a real chance more than one person could win it; as opposed to the coachspeak you hear about no one being guaranteed a starting spot – because Olson, while talented, is far less experienced than Konopka, who has proven himself a capable starter. Konopka struggled on the left side in 2013, but he acquitted himself well on the right side the prior season. Konopka’s track record at the latter position bolsters the argument that he, not Olson, should be the starter there in 2014.

Biggest offseason question: Was 2013 a ‘transition’ season?

The offensive line was one of Northwestern’s strengths in 2012. It did a decent job protecting Colter and Siemian and was particularly good at getting upfield and opening up running lanes for Colter and Venric Mark on option plays. Then came last season, when the O-line was one of Northwestern’s weakest position units. Lapses in critical situations – from missed blocks to communication breakdowns to penalties – contributed to Northwestern having one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten (9th in yards per play). As the Wildcats’ struggles deepened and losses piled up, the popular diagnosis for the line’s issues was inexperience. 2013 was a transition season, observers remarked, and everything would get better in time.

That line of thinking is about to be put to the test. Northwestern’s line returns basically everyone from last season, and one could posit that the growing pains from a dismal campaign will help the line make a collective leap in 2014. Perhaps that will be the case. It sounds reasonable. An alternate possibility is that the players who started last season and return for this season simply aren’t very good. We tend to assume that the number of returning starters correlates positively with success, but that’s not always the case. What if players who return to start performed poorly the previous season? Why would anyone be excited about that scenrario? It’s unclear whether the fact Northwestern returns a bunch of starters on its line is a good thing or not. If they play the way they did last season, we’ll know the answer after a few games.