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Northwestern football spring preview: Offensive line embraces “responsibility” to become more consistent

The unit had an up-and-down 2016 but returns four of five starters.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t take an expert to diagnose that in Northwestern’s unpredictable 2016 season, the issue that plagued the Wildcats more than any other was the inconsistent play of their offensive line.

Pat Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment countless times over the course of the season. There were defensive breakdowns, struggles in the kicking game, and erratic decisions from Clayton Thorson, but above all else, Northwestern went as its offensive line did last season.

The linemen agree.

“We saw last year, when we played well, the offense played well,” left tackle Blake Hance told Inside NU. “We put up 50 points against Michigan State because the O-line played well; we ran the ball, then we could throw it over their heads. These six games, we played awesome and we scored a lot of points and won, and these six games, we didn’t really play that well and you saw what happened.”

Without a dominant defense that could win games on its own like the Wildcats had in 2015, Northwestern needed its offense to score in bunches in order to win. The team averaged 36.9 points in wins and just 11.4 in losses. And because the offensive line determined how well the offense as a whole played, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the performance of the line basically won or lost every game.

When the offensive line was bad, it was downright awful. The unit was the primary reason Northwestern lost to Illinois State, as it was atrocious against an FCS defensive line. Clunkers against teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota are more understandable, but still concerning considering they happened in November.

What’s so confusing about those late-season struggles is how well the offensive line played at times last season, especially in October. In road games against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, the line surrendered a total of three sacks and Northwestern averaged 4.63 yards per carry while coming a handful of yards from going 3-0.

“When we did things well, nobody really beat us,” Hance said. “We didn’t really get stopped by anybody that we played when things were clicking.”

This offseason, the focus becomes consistency. The group is coming off of a strong Pinstripe Bowl performance, but needs to figure out how to correct its mistakes and put together solid performances week in and week out. If Northwestern wants to take the next step and become the Big Ten West contender Pat Fitzgerald is trying to consistently be, it will have to come from improvements up front.

“The good thing is that it was on us last year when those breakdowns occurred, which also means it can be on us to fix it,” right guard Tommy Doles said. “You have to build habits of consistency. Even habits that we start in spring ball are gonna carry over into the season. Are we finishing our blocks now? Are we consistently communicating with each other?”

“Those are things that, as we do them day in and day out, they’ll become habits, and our goal is that come Nevada, we’re executing that every day.”

It figures to help that Northwestern returns four of its five starters on the line in 2017. Hance, Doles, and walk-on left guard J.B. Butler, who had a breakout campaign last season, are back for their junior seasons. Center Brad North is the lone senior in the group.

Still, coach Pat Fitzgerald recognizes that there’s a lot of work to be done. He says all four of those returning starters need to become much more consistent. Perhaps more importantly, he emphasized the need for younger guys to get up to speed and become usable backups that can challenge the starters.

Fitzgerald used one of his favorite phrases, “competitive depth,” to explain why last season’s unit struggled so much after the line was very solid in 2015.

“Two years ago I think we had ultimately what we wanted,” Fitzgerald said. “We played nine or 10 guys, we had great competition. And we played pretty damn well up there. Last year we didn’t have competitive depth. When we had guys not performing, our ability to make personnel changes was pretty much nonexistent. I think that’s a challenge.”

“My hope is that we get back to where we were two years ago, where if the right guard wasn’t playing well, he’s out, next guy’s in. Left tackle isn’t playing well, he’s out, next guy’s in. But we have a long way to go before we’re there.”

Figuring out the backups that will complete the two-deep depth chart, not to mention the open starting spot at right tackle, isn’t something that will be completed by the end of spring practice. According to Fitzgerald, it’ll be an ongoing process that he hopes to have wrapped up a couple of weeks before the opener.

Hance believes that bringing back so many starters will not only improve the line’s cohesiveness, but allow him and the other upperclassmen to be better leaders for the younger players.

“We’ve been able to work more as a unit this offseason and not have as many question marks as an O-line usually does,” Hance said. “A lot of us feel like we’re in a more solidified role now so we can help the young guys get to where they need to be.”

The 2017 Northwestern football season is brimming with potential, and a big reason for that is the talent coming back on offense.

Justin Jackson is back for his senior year and will become the best running back in school history if he stays healthy. Quarterback Clayton Thorson should continue to improve as a junior, and even though Austin Carr is gone, he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal with guys like Flynn Nagel, Garrett Dickerson and Macan Wilson all returning.

Yet none of that talent can shine without the big guys up front improving and becoming drastically more consistent.

“We definitely feel a responsibility,” Hance said.

“We know that we’ve got unbelievable players behind us,” Doles added. “Clayton’s gonna make something happen if we protect him, Justin, if we give him a hole, he’s going to do something with it. It’s just exciting knowing that if we do our jobs, they’ll execute.”

Thus far, the returns have been encouraging. Jackson said that the line has had a great start to its offseason. Fitzgerald noted that they “worked their ass off this winter.”

Northwestern fans should hope that the unit continues to improve. Because as the Wildcats prepare for a promising season, the performance and steadiness of the offensive line will determine a lot about 2017.

If it continues to struggle, the season will likely again be riddled by inconsistency and mediocrity.

On the other hand, if the line puts it all together, there’s little reason why Northwestern — returning nine starters on the offensive side of things — can’t compete to win the Big Ten West.