To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Next up, at No. 6, are the two players battling for the starting center job, sophomore Brad North and junior Ian Park:
Zach Pereles (North/Park rank: 3): This offseason, the Wildcats lost the centerpiece of their offensive line for the past four years when Brandon Vitabile moved onto the NFL. He started every game during his time in Evanston, and was a solid, if unspectacular, performer ever since the day he stepped into the role. An All-Big Ten performer who went undrafted but is pushing for a roster sport on the Colts, Vitabile will be replaced by either Brad North or Ian Park, two guys who are, for the most part, unknowns. I think it's going to be a tough turnaround, but an important one; I ranked whoever wins this job as the third most important player. Ian, you didn't have this position battle ranked as one of your top 15 most important. What's your take?
Ian McCafferty (North/Park rank: NR): Northwestern's offensive line will certainly be a key player in the success of the team this year, but I just don't think that the starting center will be one of the most important players for the Wildcats. In 2014, the Northwestern offensive line was 83rd in the country in adjusted line yards, a Football Outsiders calculation that measures run blocking success, and understandably the Wildcats' record was 5-7. However in 2013, using the same rankings for the same stat, Northwestern's line was 23rd in the nation, but the team's record was still 5-7.
Obviously there is a lot of randomness in the actual outcome of games, but I believe that having playmakers on either side of the ball is more important than just having a solid offensive line. Line play is important, but it can only get you so far. Also, the two players in line to replace Vitable are, as you said, "unknowns." North redshirted his freshman year and didn't play last year, although he was the No. 9 center prospect in his class coming out of high school. Ian Park (solid first name) is a redshirt junior who has never played a collegiate game at center. He started eight games at right guard in 2013, but hasn't seen the field much since. We don't yet know how effective either North or Park will be and that's why at the moment, I don't think they are as important to this team as some other players.
Zach Pereles: Here's the thing, though: to me, although offensive line play can be measured in stats, like you mentioned, the center position is really specialized. If there's one especially notable position, it's the center. Why? It's where the play starts; if you can't snap the ball, you can't run offense. If you can't snap the ball cleanly, there'll be lots of messy exchanges, fumbles, and even penalties. More and more false starts are called because centers double-clutch on the snap. Having a new quarterback and a new center is a storyline that I think hasn't been talked about enough. There have been a lot of great quarterback-center combinations who have incredible chemistry, and that makes teams go. Think Jeff Saturday-Peyton Manning in Indy. If the Northwestern offense is to be successful this year, that chemistry will have to form sooner rather than later. Additionally, centers often identify defensive line schemes, motions, blitzers and other habits of a defenses' front seven. Whoever takes over for Vitabile will be critical in the development of both an inexperienced quarterback and an offense that has struggled in recent years.
Ian McCafferty: I fully acknowledge that the center position is important to a football team, but in my mind there are more important positions for this team in 2015. Snapping the ball cleanly is an integral part of every football play, but any center worth his salt should be able to snap the ball to the quarterback. The chemistry factor is indeed interesting, but I feel like having two new players at center and QB will actually help this. Both players will be new so they don't have extensive experience playing with anybody else. If anything I think the chemistry between a quarterback and a wide receiver is just as important, and most of Northwestern's receivers have their experience playing with Trevor Siemian or Kain Colter. It will be interesting to see how a new QB will affect both line play and receiver play this season.
Zach Pereles: I just think the fact that, as we both have mentioned, there are so many unknowns with North and Park is exactly what makes them so important. North and Park are both talented, but more so than many other positions, experience can be a major factor for a center. One of these two players really needs to adjust quickly to a starting role, and needs to be a rock in the middle of the line, just as Vitabile was.
Henry Bushnell: 3 | Josh Rosenblat: 3 | Zach Pereles: 3 | Josh Burton: 6
Michael Odom: 7 | Jason Dorow: 9 | Kevin Dukovic: 11 | Ben Goren: NR
Ian McCafferty: NR
Thoughts on North and Park? Who wins the job? And how important will that player be?