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Northwestern football position preview: Offensive Linemen

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Will they be able to keep Clayton Thorson standing upright?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

We continue the series with the offensive line, a group that's one of the team's most important but currently has a lot of moving pieces.

Overview

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

Other returning contributors: Tommy Doles (R-So.), J.B. Butler (R-So.), Sam Coverdale (Jr.), Ben Oxley (R-So)*

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

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

*switched over from defensive line

The offensive line remains a big question mark for Northwestern. We didn't learn very much from spring football, with Ian Park injured and the full starting lineup still undecided. Connor Mahoney is the only guaranteed starter in the interior, with Hance and Olson solidifying roles on the edges. Mertz, Doles and North should all rotate through the guard spots with Park presumably returning to center.

Obviously, all of this is subject to change once the season begins and injuries take their toll. Last year, Northwestern's offensive line was below average by available metrics. This inconsistency contributed to Northwestern's offensive struggles. Northwestern's offensive line has been below average for years now, and it remains to be seen whether Northwestern's incoming prospects can turn Northwestern's constant weakness into a strength. With four seniors on this year's line, younger players like Tommy Doles, J.B. Butler and Jared Thomas probably won't get playing time if the starters stay healthy, but given last year's injury situation, it's definitely not out of the question. Additionally, Ben Oxley moves over from defensive line to the offensive line, and it will be interesting to see if he can contribute.

Key Player

Ian Park/Brad North/the starting center

After losing Brandon Vitabile following the 2014 season, Northwestern failed to provide an adequate replacement for Vitabile's veteran leadership and solid play at center. Ian Park ended the season as the starter, but missed all of spring and was not the starter at the beginning of last year. He had some standout games (see Stanford) but, like the rest of his fellow linemen, was inconsistent. Although Brad North, the initial 2015 starter, shifted to guard for a few games last season, he could easily slot back into the starting center role. His struggles, however, came with the simplest of roles: snapping the ball accurately. Regardless of who plays, Northwestern needs to find a consistent option at center that can facilitate the rest of the offense.

Big Question

Can the offensive line have some continuity?

Last season, the Wildcats couldn't keep their linemen on the field, but they did a great job of shifting positions and remaining flexible. Ideally, Northwestern's offensive line can solidify into proper roles in 2016, even as the starting lineup remains unknown until the first game of the season. While the flexibility of Northwestern's offensive line is a good thing, the team would be much better off if everyone stays healthy and the line can start to develop some chemistry.

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 Brad North J.B. Butler
Right tackle Eric Olson Tommy Doles Adam Lemke-Bell

With the exception of North or Park at center, this seems like a pretty good bet for who will be on the line for Northwestern's first possession against Western Michigan. After that, it's anyone's guess as to how the line will shake out. Because Oxley just switched sides of the ball, it's hard to imagine him cracking the rotation early in the season (hence he's not listed above), but that could change depending on how quickly he develops. Luckily, Northwestern has some depth across the board, and if the last few years are any indication, the team is going to need it.