To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
We continue with No. 8: offensive tackle Blake Hance. Davis Rich and Caleb Friedman discuss:
Davis Rich (Hance rank: NR): I didn’t include Blake Hance in my top 10 list because we already know what we are getting from the redshirt junior. He’s still an important member of an offensive line unit that will be a significant determinant of success for Northwestern in 2017, but Hance has started 21 games at left tackle for the Wildcats already, more than any other returner on the line. The Jacksonville, Ill., product will undoubtedly continue to develop, but I doubt it will be contributions from Hance that will improve the Wildcat offensive line.
Instead, improvements (or lack thereof) from a host of less-experienced linemen, like J.B. Butler and Tommy Doles, will determine how well the offensive line plays in 2017. Northwestern finished 93rd in the country in adjusted sack rate and 68th in adjusted line yards a season ago — rankings that will need to improve if the offense is to succeed. Battling to start at right tackle are graduate transfer Trey Klock and redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel, adding to the uncertainty around the offensive line. I have the winner of the right tackle battle at fifth on my list because, in my eyes, a weak performance from Klock or Vogel might seal the fate of the unit, given the lack of experience beyond the starters.
Hance’s experience and leadership make him an integral part of the offensive line and a key to success in 2017. However, the development of the offensive line will be defined by younger players stepping into new roles and continuing to improve.
Caleb Friedman (Hance rank: 3): Northwestern’s offensive line struggled in 2016, and four out of the the five starting offensive linemen will be back in 2017. That means the development of those four players — plus anybody else who sees snaps on the line — will be one of the most important storylines for the team this fall. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has said that the team will go as the offensive line does, and he’s right.
The Wildcats gave up 39 sacks last season, which was second-worst in the Big Ten. A major part of fixing that problem would be an improvement from Hance at left tackle. You could argue that we know what we’re going to get from Hance because he’s played more games than anyone else on the line, but his performances have really been a mixed bag throughout his career. He made the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2015, but regressed last season. One area he needs to improve upon is his footwork against quicker edge-rushers (see the Illinois State tape from last season).
When arguing which position is the most important on an offensive line, left tackle is generally thought to be at the top of list, assuming the quarterback is right-handed. In my mind, protecting Clayton Thorson’s blind-side is of the utmost importance next season because if he gets hurt, it’s tough to envision Northwestern doing much in the Big Ten. Also, Thorson has a tendency to get happy feet in the pocket when the offensive line struggles. He sometimes expects pressure before it’s actually there, which typically leads to rushed or inaccurate throws. Northwestern needs a consistent offensive line to get a consistent Thorson.
Hance is high on my list, but that’s because he has a lot of room to improve on last season’s campaign, and he has the talent to do it, as he proved in his freshman season and certain games last season. Keep an eye on Hance’s performance in 2017. It’s going to matter.