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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Offensive Line preview

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Northwestern has some uncertainty up front.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. We finish up the offense with the offensive line.

Personnel

Returning Starters: Blake Hance (So.), Eric Olson (Sr.), Brad North (Jr.), Connor Mahoney (Sr.), Shane Mertz (6th-year Sr.), Ian Park (Sr.)

Other returning contributors: Tommy Doles (So.), J.B. Butler (So.), Sam Coverdale (Jr.), Kenton Playko (Sr.)

Redshirt freshmen: Jared Thomas, Adam Lemke-Bell, Andrew Otterman

Incoming freshmen: Cameron Kolwich, Nik Urban, Jesse Meyler, Gunnar Vogel

Overview

Northwestern's offensive line was below-average for most of the season due to a rash of injuries that stopped offensive line coach Adam Cushing from putting together a consistent starting lineup for the whole season. While offensive line injuries are common, a combination of high turnover due to injury and lack of depth led to a disappointing season from the offensive line, even if it was an improvement over 2014. Northwestern will be losing Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus, who both started at points last season. Backup lineman Adam DePietro has also left the program, leaving Northwestern with some spots to fill.

However, part of next year's starting lineup should look similar to the lineup that played against Tennessee, barring any injuries or major changes in production. Shane Mertz started 6 games at right guard last season, and he is likely to fill in for Frazier as long as he can stay healthy. Mogus's injury-hampered season left Northwestern searching for answers at left tackle and left guard, but Blake Hance solidified his role as the starting left tackle as the year went on. The biggest question for Northwestern will be at left guard. Connor Mahoney is the incumbent, but Northwestern has a group of younger linemen who could also take the spot.

No matter who the starters are, a rising wave of young offensive linemen should give Northwestern more depth on the offensive line. Hance, Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler all received playing time last year because of Northwestern's constant injury problems and Hance impressed. Redshirt freshmen Jared Thomas and Andrew Otterman could also slide into roles vacated by DePietro and Mogus. Whatever the case, the offensive line will once again be a key component in giving Justin Jackson ample space to run and Clayton Thorson time to throw.

Position Battles

Center

Ian Park spent much of the season at center, but a late-season injury forced Brad North back into the starting role he earned coming out of the summer. Park is a senior and won the job from North last year, but that could definitely change heading into this season. Neither center was outstanding last season. Both centers were beaten badly at times in Big Ten play and contributed to Northwestern's stagnant offense. Park looked more comfortable at left guard, and he could return to his original spot next season. Redshirt freshman Jared Thomas is the only other center listed on the roster, and he could certainly put some pressure on Park and North during the offseason.

Left Guard

Connor Mahoney ended the season at left guard, but he yielded his starting spot to veterans like Mertz and Frazier repeatedly last season. Mahoney was probably Northwestern's least consistent lineman overall, and he will be challenged during the offseason. Thomas is a good prospect and could slide in at left guard, even though he was recruited as Northwestern's future center. North also has experience at guard, so he could also be in the mix. Mahoney is a senior and will have have the advantage heading into camp, but his starting spot is in question.

Depth

With Mertz coming back for another year and the addition of Thomas, Otterman, and Lemke-Bell. Northwestern will have enough depth to redshirt its three incoming freshmen, as the team usually does. While Northwestern lacks clarity and consistency on the offensive line, that also means that Northwestern has plenty of players to rotate if injuries pile up once again.

Burning Question

Will Northwestern's younger generation of linemen take over this year?

Northwestern will have four seniors on the offensive line this year in Eric Olson, Mertz, Park and Mahoney. All four were mainstays of the o-line in past seasons, but Northwestern's offensive line was also fairly bad in those seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has been waiting for the veteran linemen to step up, but that did not really happen last year. Northwestern will have a brand-new offensive line by 2017, and it's a matter of time before players like Tommy Doles and Jared Thomas take over from the current seniors. Northwestern's offensive line has not been good enough over the past two seasons to justify not giving the younger players a shot at starting, and two of the seniors had major injury issues last season. It's possible that the next generation of offensive linemen can start contributing in 2016.

Projected Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Left tackle Blake Hance Tommy Doles Adam Lemke-Bell
Left guard Connor Mahoney Jared Thomas Sam Coverdale
Center Ian Park Brad North Jared Thomas
Right guard Shane Mertz J.B. Butler Sam Coverdale
Right tackle Eric Olson Tommy Doles Adam Lemke-Bell