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Five big questions: No. 4 Who needs to improve the most next season?

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More consistency from the offensive line would go a long way toward more wins.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason recently is underway for Northwestern football, and though there’s well over half a year until the 2017 season opener against Nevada, it’s never too early to take a look at what next year’s team will look like. This series of questions will continue with a look at a position group that needs to step up in order for the Wildcats to have sustained success in the Big Ten West: the offensive line.

Northwestern will be without some of its biggest playmakers from 2016 next season: All Big Ten performers Austin Carr, Anthony Walker Jr. and Ifeadi Odenigbo will be gone, as will many other solid contributors.

As is the case every season, younger players will have to step up into elevated roles in those areas, but improvement at those positions won’t be as important as better play from the offensive line, a unit that was up-and-down all season long, will be.

Northwestern gave up 39 sacks in 2016, good for 113th in the country. Simply put, this number must go down in 2017 if the Wildcats are to compete for a Big Ten West title.

But the possibility for improvement is there.

The only starter leaving is right tackle Eric Olson, and Northwestern seems to have the depth to replace him. Ben Oxley — a former defensive lineman — figures to take Olson spot. Oxley switched from the defensive line to the offensive line, and he has above-average athleticism for the position.

Guard and team captain Connor Mahoney will be gone, but he lost his job to J.B. Butler during the season, and Butler stepped up and played well, especially as just a redshirt freshman.

Butler’s guard counterpart Tommy Doles was also pretty good without being great, and should be a solid Big Ten lineman next year.

Between the two guards will be Brad North. North, like most of the lineman, struggled mightily in certain games, notably Wisconsin and Minnesota. While the blame shouldn’t fall squarely on North’s shoulders for those two performances, defenders shot into the Northwestern backfield with ease, making it incredibly difficult for Justin Jackson to get going, especially in short-yardage situations.

And finally there will be Blance Hance, who played left tackle this season.

2016 was a step backward for Hance, who made the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2015. Skilled edge rushers terrorized the sophomore tackle, so Clayton Thorson had to run for his life frequently during games.

Glimmers of a strong O-line did exist, however. In Big Ten games against Iowa, Michigan State and even Ohio State, the line held up, and played well enough for Northwestern to have a chance in all three games (although the ‘Cats did lose in the Horseshoe).

And the line delivered a spectacular performance in the Pinstripe Bowl, allowing Justin Jackson to rush for 224 yards.

Improvement on the line will do wonders the Wildcats’ offense.

While Jackson did have a monster season, the run blocking wasn’t good enough in certain games.

Early in the season, offensive coordinator Mick McCall had to all but abandon the running game because the line couldn’t generate any push against Illinois State. Let that sink in.

The running blocking was better in the following two games against Duke and Nebraska, but it still wasn’t good by any stretch.

The others duds in the running game came against Wisconsin and Minnesota; Jackson averaged under 3.8 yards per carry. The line didn’t pass protect particularly well in either of these games either, but bigger, stronger defensive lines were able to overpower Northwestern’s front five.

Fixing this isn’t necessarily a straightforward matter. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke at length about all the weight room records the team set last offseason, but what did that really get it?

Developing technique and better understanding the offensive playbook and schemes will surely help some. Experience is important.

The flip side of that coin is that the line won’t be all that different next season, barring any major surprises. If the problem is that Northwestern just doesn’t have the players to win against the bigger teams in the conference, that will be no different next season.

The line did play really well at times last season, so it’s not as if the personnel physically cannot compete. It’s a matter of being more consistent, and continuing the strong stretches of play for longer periods.

The person who may benefit most from better offensive line play is Clayton Thorson. One of his most glaring weaknesses is his presence and awareness in the pocket, and some of that is because he doesn’t have enough time to throw on a fairly sizable percentage of plays.

If the line can take the next step and have success more consistently, Thorson’s development will be facilitated and not stunted, even without his top wideout, giving the junior-to-be a shot to be one of the conference’s best next season.

A shot at the Big Ten West crown may follow.