Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It’s the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald’s team heading into camp.
We start up front: Who will emerge on the interior of the Northwestern offensive line?
Ian Park. Geoff Mogus. Connor Mahoney. Shane Mertz. Matt Frazier. Brad North.
Those are the six guys that started at least three games at either left guard, center or right guard for Northwestern last year. Many of them started at two of those three positions at some point. Injuries and inconsistent play left us guessing as to who would take the field every week.
As for 2016, the picture is only somewhat clearer. Mogus and Frazier are gone, having exhausted their eligibility. Back in late March, Fitzgerald said Mahoney could be pretty solidly penciled in at starter at left guard, but said the other two interior spots are wide open.
So that leaves us with Park (one start at LG, eight at C), Mertz (six at RG, one at LG), and North (four starts at C) competing for two spots.
In our most recent depth chart projections, we plugged Park in at center and Mertz at right guard. It’s worth noting however, that North got the start at center in the Outback Bowl and that Fitzgerald likes to rotate his players a lot, especially up front. So no matter who starts, we will see all three players, as well as J.B. Butler and perhaps even more players down the depth chart.
Still, it’s important to establish a starting five up front—something Northwestern was unable to do last year (eight different starting combinations last year)—this year. From what we’ve seen, the competition at center falls between North and Park, the two players that have experience at the position from last year. If Park wins the competition in the middle, North will have his work cut out for him given that he does not have starting experience at guard. If North wins the center spot, Park and Mertz, who has no center experience, will battle it out at right guard. Got it so far?
If that seems confusing, just wait. Since Park is the only one with significant experience at both spots, he’ll be competing at both spots. So if he wins at guard, North seems to be the de facto choice at center; he has experience there. But if Park wins at center, Mertz is in line at right guard. Of course, he could end up losing both battles, leaving a North-Mertz battery at center and right guard.
Of course, it’s not completely out of the question that someone who didn’t start last year, like Butler or Jared Thomas, makes a move as well.
It sets up for an intriguing and important set of battles in training camp. Every single play begins with the snap of a football. Knowing who will be doing that sooner rather than later will help both Clayton Thorson and the other offensive linemen. And identifying who will line up to the center’s right is of major importance, too. You can teach all the skill you want, but you can’t teach chemistry, something the Wildcats lacked very much last season.