We've ranked our Top 10 most important players for 2016, and in at No. 10 is Blake Hance, a rising redshirt sophomore left tackle. Hance did a solid job last year and earned Big Ten All-Freshman team status for his work protecting Clayton Thorson's blindside. He'll look to take a step forward this coming year and become one of the top tackles in the conference.
Tristan Jung and Ian McCafferty debate how important he is to the team's success in 2016.
Tristan Jung (Rank: No. 3): Northwestern's offensive line was a mess last year due to injury, but the redshirt freshman Hance emerged as a starter at left tackle. He was decent last season, but his value as a steady force on Thorson's blind side was invaluable to Northwestern's patchwork offensive line. I have Hance ranked highly because I believe Hance's development and health will be key to Northwestern developing a good offense next season.
The Wildcats recruited Hance to play on the offensive line even though he played some tight end in high school. As with most Northwestern offensive line recruits, Hance redshirted his freshman year but was quickly added to the starting lineup after Geoff Mogus' injury early last season. Even when Mogus was healthy, Hance retained his spot at left tackle and gained confidence as the season progressed.
With Northwestern's biggest needs clearly on the offensive side of the ball, protecting Thorson will be a huge factor in any potential improvement. Northwestern was 101st in adjusted sack rate last year, which significantly hampered Northwestern's offensive output. As Thorson's primary protector, Hance is critical to the team's success.
Ian McCafferty (Rank: NR): Blake Hance is important. Just the fact that he plays left tackle makes him an important part of this team. However, there are more important pieces to this team than an average left tackle. Hance was fine last season, and Thorson was still running for his life on seemingly almost every dropback. It's true that Northwestern needs to take a big step forward on offense, but that will come from Thorson and the receivers more than the line.
Thorson can have all the time in the world, but if he misses his target, it doesn't matter. Similarly, if the receivers can't get open, Thorson can't complete a pass, no matter how good the protection is. There are simply more problems and more important positions on this team than Blake Hance at left tackle.
TJ: I agree that Thorson and the receivers must improve next season, but if Hance can improve into an impactful force on the offensive line that Northwestern has lacked for the last two seasons, Northwestern's offense will be greatly en-Hanced (I can't even make this pun in good conscience). Hance's main skills are his agility and speed, but if he can develop strength, improve technique and stay healthy for a full year, Thorson's job will be much easier.
Last year, Hance may have been "fine", but he could have been better. On some plays, he struggled to give Thorson the protection he needed, which nearly led to disaster against Penn State and a stagnant offensive performance against Wisconsin. If he can become a true rock on the offensive line, it will give Thorson enough breathing room to be the quarterback that Northwestern needs.
IM: Hance may very well improve, but at this point we kind of already know what we're going to get from him. As you described in our season in review, "Against teams with below average defensive fronts, Mogus and Hance looked fine, but they really struggled against elite pass rushers." That's kind of what you're going to get from Hance this season unless he undergoes a huge transformation. He can be a rock at the end of the line but not an elite rock.
Last season, Mogus was ranked as one of the team's most important players and, granted he got hurt, he wasn't fantastic when he played. The Northwestern offensive line has been incredibly volatile the last few years and it's dangerous to just assume that a player will improve. Hance may become the left tackle that Northwestern needs, but he also has a pretty good chance to not do so.
Also, we've completely ignored Justin Jackson and the running game, which is kind of fitting due to the fact that it's been great despite the offensive line. Jackson is one of the best running backs in the nation and that's with an offensive line that was 87th in adjusted line yards last season. To an extent you could argue that the line really isn't all that important to half this offense anyway.
TJ: I disagree that the offensive line isn't that important. The offensive line was mediocre last year and the offense was consequently mediocre. With Northwestern lacking elite talent at wide receiver, any improvements from the offensive line will be very important. Hance may not become an elite offensive lineman this year, but if he does, this offense will have a much better chance to succeed.
And of course, if Hance can also improve as a run blocker, that could make Jackson and his fellow ball carriers' lives much easier. If Northwestern is going to build the base for a successful offense over the next few years, it will have to turn offensive line prospects like Hance into above average players. With Hance only entering his sophomore season, he has a chance to become that player for Northwestern in 2016.