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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Offensive Line

Northwestern’s offensive line will be key to the team’s performance.

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

The second part of our 2017 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.

Next up, we have the offensive line.


Returning starters (career starts): LT Blake Hance (21), LG J.B. Butler (7), C Brad North (18), RG Tommy Doles (13)

Key losses: Connor Mahoney, Shane Mertz, Eric Olson

Other returners: Jared Thomas (R-So.), Andrew Otterman (R-So.), Ben Oxley (Jr.), Adam Lemke-Bell (So.), Graham Bullmore (Sr.),

Incoming freshmen: Nik Urban (R-Fr.), Jason Goosen (R-Fr.), Cam Kolwich (R-Fr.), Gunnar Vogel (R-Fr.), Jesse Meyler (R-Fr.) [true freshmen Sam Gerak, Rashawn Slater, Ethan Wiederkehr will likely all redshirt]

Offensive line is usually one of the most difficult position groups to project for Northwestern. Northwestern’s offensive line has been wildly inconsistent and typically not very good over the past 2-3 seasons. They’ve had really good games (Ohio State), really bad games (Illinois State), and a host of merely average performances which results in a below average group nationally. The line was 68th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards last season, a simple metric that quantifies each rush attempt. While the rushing attack was able to get by thanks to Justin Jackson’s brilliance, the pass blocking was particularly poor. Northwestern allowed sacks on 10.1 percent of passing downs, which was 101st in the nation. The Wildcats were 93rd overall in adjusted sack rate. That’s bad.

This lack of consistency and the usual offensive line turnover due to injury has caused Pat Fitzgerald to quickly to make changes on the offensive line when things aren’t working. He likes to mix-and-match his options to make up for any shortcomings on the offensive line. J.B. Butler, for example, only started the final 7 games of the season and played both right guard and left guard, relegating senior Connor Mahoney to the second string.

However, this year, there should be less uncertainty heading into the season. Blake Hance and Brad North solidified at their positions at left tackle and center, respectively. North and Hance weren’t standout linemen last season, but they both played well enough and have significant Big Ten experience. Tommy Doles had a good season at right guard and is also probably a lock to start against Nevada, unless he moves to a different position. J.B. Butler should also be there at left guard, but he’s moved around as a utility lineman and special teams player for his entire career, so we can’t be 100 percent sure on that.

That’s only four starters, though. Right guard is still a question mark.

Key Player

Blake Hance

Blake Hance has been the poster child for Northwestern’s offensive line inconsistency throughout the past two seasons. While he recovered from his cataclysmically poor game against Illinois State and delivered a passable season at left tackle, the talent Hance displayed when he made the Big Ten All-Freshman team was often dormant. Northwestern’s excellent stretch in the middle of the season was directly linked to Hance providing better pass protection for Thorson. Hance is arguably the third-most important player on the offense, as he needs to play well for Thorson to reach his full potential.

The problem is that Hance just didn’t play well for much of last season. Hance has to bring at least an average performance to every single game (yes, even Nevada) in order for Northwestern to stay on track. If that doesn’t happen, Northwestern’s offensive line is in serious trouble.

Big Question

Who will start at right tackle? Will that player be good?

Redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel has a great name, but he is a redshirt freshman. He’s currently our projected starter at right tackle. The next man up on our projected post-spring depth chart is Andrew Otterman, who also has zero starts to his name. Vogel got the most reps in spring, but we shall see if he can secure the job in the fall.

I can’t even remember the last time Northwestern started a redshirt freshman on the offensive line to begin a season. Pat Fitzgerald loves to play his veterans on the o-line, almost to a fault. This would be a huge break from tradition. Vogel was a three-star recruit from Ohio and had a solid recruiting rating, but we’ve never seen him play in a game before.

If Vogel and Otterman don’t pan out, Northwestern’s depth will be challenged. Ben Oxley could shift over from backup guard. Tommy Doles has experience at right tackle and could shift over while Vogel, Trey Klock or Oxley fill in at right guard instead. This is one of Northwestern’s only huge question marks on the starting lineup, so it will be vital to answer immediately. The starting right tackle will be a mystery until Kenosha at the earliest.

Offensive Line Depth Chart

Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Blake Hance J.B. Butler Brad North Tommy Doles Gunnar Vogel
Jesse Meyler Ben Oxley Jared Thomas Trey Klock Andrew Otterman
Adam Lemke-Bell Graham Bullmore Nik Urban Jason Goosen

I have no idea who the third string center is.