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Northwestern Offensive Line Overhaul: At tackle, it’s a wide-open competition

So...who’s going to take the jobs?

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

At Big Ten Media Days, Pat Fitzgerald announced there would be an open competition at the tackle position for Northwestern. After another disappointing year in the trenches for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald has issued a full reset.

“We’ve got seven guys competing at tackle right now, and four of them have got to step up and take those top four roles,” Fitzgerald said. “And last week...I had those guys stick around, and I said I’m not sure which one of you guys is gonna be the starter at either position, but feel free to take the job...We need to play better at the tackle position.”

That quote means that Blake Hance, Northwestern’s starter at left tackle last season, is no longer safe on the depth chart for 2017. We knew the right tackle spot would be open after Eric Olson graduated, but Hance’s inability to get a vote of confidence before training camp should be worrying. We shall see how the position shapes up in Kenosha and beyond, but right now, everything is up in the air.

We rag on it constantly, but Northwestern’s offensive line was not very good last season. Northwestern’s coaching staff and its fans understand that, and the stats back it up. Northwestern ranked 97th out of 129 FBS teams in Adjusted Sack Rate and 68th in Adjusted Line Yards, well below the Power 5 average. But by any measure or casual viewing of the team, last season’s offensive line play was a disappointment, especially when it comes to the tackles.

It did get slightly better as the year went on. In three of their last four games, the line propelled Northwestern rushers to at least 5 yards per carry. But while Northwestern had success running the ball, it struggled to create any width or depth in pass protection, the primary focus of the tackles. Thorson got sacked 38 times last season, compared to 22 his freshman year. And despite Northwestern’s solid late-season efforts, the Wildcats gave up 16 sacks in their final three games. Some were Thorson’s fault, who still struggles with getting the ball out quickly and with pocket presence. But it became clear by the end of 2016 that most of it wasn’t on him. He just didn’t have much time.

Last season, Fitzgerald pulled no punches when discussing the tackles and the line as a whole, especially after Northwestern’s infamous 9-7 loss to Illinois State.

“Our o-line got outplayed. Flat out,” he said after the loss. “I don’t think our tackles moved their feet very well. If we had more depth, I would have made more changes in-game.” The rampant mistakes and weaknesses were clear in real-time, and were made even more obvious when watching the highlights afterward. Whether it was Blake Hance being overpowered repeatedly or the constant, drive-stalling holding penalties across the line, Northwestern’s awful start could clearly be pinned primarily onto the broad shoulders of the five men protecting Clayton Thorson.

Thorson and Justin Jackson are the keys to Northwestern’s offense and Northwestern’s potential challenge for a Big Ten West title. For those two to produce, the line must improve in 2017.

At Media Days, Fitzgerald essentially confirmed three returning starters on the offensive line: Brad North at center and Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler at the two guard positions. This stability is a good sign, as Doles and Butler were dependable and North played quite well. It wasn’t vintage Big Ten offensive line play, but it was enough to get by.

But at tackle, Northwestern will need some serious improvement. Last year’s starting right tackle, oft-injured Eric Olson, is gone. The aforementioned Hance, a redshirt junior with 21 starts under his belt, has struggled throughout his career. Fitzgerald has confirmed that the jobs are wide open, but who are the players that can step up and win the battle for a starting role?

One candidate (who will immediately expand the field from seven to eight) is graduate transfer Trey Klock, who spent time at tackle while he was at Georgia Tech. Fitzgerald spent some time discussing Klock at media day as well: “I’m excited about Trey...[He] was really impressive in the video I saw of him at his previous institution.” Klock was billed as a utility lineman, but with the potential openings at tackle, it would make sense for him to join the battle.

As for those already on Northwestern’s roster, the two competitors who seem to have an advantage are redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel, a highly recruited Ohioan who impressed coaches in practice last year, and redshirt sophomore Andrew Otterman, who appeared in every game in 2016 as a backup. They are followed closely by redshirt sophomore Adam Lemke-Bell and redshirt freshmen Jesse Meyler, Jason Goosen and Cam Kolwich.

Fitzgerald attempted to foster competition in the offensive line last year, but with limited depth and experience, especially at tackle, he was often unable to do so.

“When Blake was a little bit inconsistent, we didn’t have anybody to step up and push him,” Fitzgerald said. But with 2017 bringing a graduate transfer and four redshirt freshmen at the tackle position to the table, Hance should be pushed constantly in 2017.

We won’t know the names of Clayton Thorson’s two most important protectors until the week before the season opener. Fitzgerald is hoping to use that to make them better prepared for it than Hance and Olson were last year.