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Northwestern football summer guide: Offensive line

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There's a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of improvement necessary. Could a few underclassmen be the answers?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. The final offensive unit is the offensive line:

Overview

Returning Starters (Career Starts): G/T Geoff Mogus (23) (Sr.), G Matt Frazier (16) (Sr.), T Eric Olson (10) (Jr.)
Key Losses: C Brandon Vitabile, T Jack Konopka, T Paul Jorgensen
Other Returning Players: G/C Ian Park (Jr.), G Adam DePietro (Jr.), G/T Shane Mertz (Sr.), G Connor Mahoney (Jr.), T Kenton Playko (Jr.), G/T Sam Coverdale (So.), C Brad North (So.), T Blake Hance (RS Fr.), T Tommy Doles (RS Fr.)
Incoming Freshmen: G/C Jared Thomas, T Adam Lemke-Bell, G/T Andrew Otterman

With the departure of Brandon Vitabile, who started every single game of his Wildcat career, and the inconsistent play of just about every returning contributor from a year ago, the Northwestern offensive line epitomizes the word uncertainty. Coming out of spring ball, there was only one surefire starter, and even that player, Geoff Mogus, wasn't sure what position he'd be taking the field at against Stanford. This will, therefore, be one of the most intriguing position groups to watch throughout fall camp. There's some young talent, but a lack of proven players.

Key player(s)

Blake Hance and Tommy Doles

For many teams, losing two senior offensive tackles would be just as ominous as losing a starting center. But in Northwestern's case, this has the potential to be addition by subtraction. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but both Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgenson really struggled in 2014, so the losses of the two haven't created holes as much as they've created opportunity.

That opportunity is for two redshirt freshmen, Blake Hance and Tommy Doles. Both were heavily recruited and highly rated coming out of high school, and both have been generating some buzz ever since the winter. Hance, a former high school tight end, is trying to supplant Eric Olson as the starting right guard, while Doles, who picked NU over Michigan despite growing up in Grand Rapids, must show the coaching staff enough to convince them to keep Mogus at guard. That would leave the starting left tackle job, arguably the second most important one in football, to Doles.

Fitzgerald and offensive line coach Adam Cushing might opt for experience over the unknown of the two freshmen. That's the safe option. But when safe doesn't necessarily equal good, the concept of an unknown becomes a positive one. It brings hope. Olson and Mogus could be solid on the edge if called upon, but if the Wildcats' front five is going to significantly elevate its level of play in 2015, its best hope is Hance and Doles.

Biggest question

Where will Geoff Mogus play?

If you're looking for a definitive answer to the above question, you'll be disappointed. We simply don't have it yet. But we can at least discuss the pros and cons of the two options.

Mogus has been a guard his whole career. He started all 12 games at left guard in 2014, and would've done the same in 2013 if he hadn't missed one contest due to injury. In those 23 career starts, he's been unspectacular but, for the most part, solid. While there have been many moving parts around him at three of the other four positions, Mogus has remained dependable.

However, with no incumbent at left tackle, and two upperclassmen who could potentially start at guard in Matt Frazier and Adam DePietro (plus Shane Mertz, a 6-foot-8 tackle-turned-guard who apparently had a good spring), Northwestern began experimenting with Mogus at left tackle once the senior returned from injury in spring practice. "We're trying to get the best five guys out there," Mogus said.

But it's an entirely new position for Mogus, and it's one he didn't appear to be entirely comfortable in during spring ball. Here's Mogus on the transition:

"There's things I've got to work on. It's a lot different than guard. You've got to hold that edge, you've really got to get back. So I'm trying to work on my pass sets a little bit, and trying to take it day by day... Playing guard, you've got to hold the depth of the pocket, you're not setting that far back; at tackle, you've got to hold the edge, so it's a whole new transition."

Both options are, in a way, risky. If Mogus stays at guard, that opens things up for one of the aforementioned redshirt freshmen tackles, and it's anybody's guess whether they would sink or swim. But if Mogus moves to tackle, his own performance and adaptation become question marks, as does the play of DePietro, who would presumably slot in at left guard.

Projected Depth Chart

"Mogus at tackle" depth chart

Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
1st String Geoff Mogus Adam DePietro Brad North Matt Frazier Eric Olson
2nd String Tommy Doles Connor Mahoney Ian Park Shane Mertz Blake Hance

"Mogus at guard" depth chart

Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
1st String Tommy Doles Geoff Mogus Brad North Matt Frazier Eric Olson
2nd String Blake Hance Adam DePietro Ian Park Adam DePietro Blake Hance

Olson saw the majority of first team reps at right tackle in the "spring game," so he remains the starter there for now. Matt Frazier missed spring practice due to injury, but should be the starting right guard — unless Mogus stays at left guard, in which case DePietro could provide real competition. It's looking like North is the favorite open the year as the starting center. The left side of the line has been discussed above.