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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the offensive line

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The O-line, much like NU as a whole, got it going after a slow start.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. To finish the offense, we have the offensive line.

Overall Grade: B

No unit epitomized Northwestern’s 2017 turnaround more than the offensive line. After two years of much-maligned performance, we collectively buried the unit after losses to Duke and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin game was a definite low as Northwestern allowed 8 crushing sacks in a loss that cost the Wildcats a shot at a Big Ten West title.

Then, a switch flipped. Somehow, Northwestern’s offensive line went from the team’s biggest weakness to a genuine strength over the eight-game winning streak. The communication was much better. Thorson had more time to throw and find targets downfield. The adjusted sack rate and passing down line yards improved on the whole. The offense recovered from its early funk and delivered time and time again. The line also played really well in the three overtime wins, which should also count for something.

The only downgrade for the unit was the run blocking, which struggled mightily at times (Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue). Justin Jackson’s yards per carry dipped from 5.1 to 4.6, and it often felt like he was doing even more than usual to get his numbers. It didn’t end up hurting Northwestern too much, but without two games against truly awful run defenses (Illinois and Nebraska), the rushing numbers might’ve been even worse.

Player grades

(C) Brad North: A-

North, to me, was the most consistent member of Northwestern’s offensive line heading into this season, and he continued that solid play in 2017. North, a senior in 2017, had the most career starts of anyone on the line and had been through plenty of Big Ten games. He started every game in 2017 and never looked fazed. There aren’t many offensive line stats, but I feel like North’s protections were usually pretty solid. You also have to factor in his leadership when discussing this unit’s impressive second half turnaround. Anyway, Brad North: really good football player! We’ll miss him dearly next year. Hopefully someone takes a look at him in the NFL.

(LT) Blake Hance: B-

The best tackles are seen and not heard. By not allowing horrendous sacks and making good blocks on every play, ideally no one realizes the left tackle is even on the field. There were games this year in which it was very apparent Blake Hance was on the field (Duke). Hance has had a rollercoaster time in Evanston. After last year’s inconsistency, Hance was officially listed as the starting left guard. Even when he rotated over to left tackle, he was listed as the backup until after Week 7. He played much more than Jared Thomas, the ostensible starter, but he was clearly somewhat in Fitzgerald’s doghouse after 2016 and the poor start to the year. The last two years have seen him have glaring technical issues at the start of the year that get worked out by November.

However, credit to Hance for bouncing back in the second half once again in 2017. His improved play was one of the most important factors of the second half, and I thought he played particularly well against Michigan State and Purdue (NU only allowed one sack in both of those games), two of the more difficult defensive fronts in the conference. I would give him a solid ‘B/B-’ on the year, with some room for improvement.

(RT) Rashawn Slater: B-

In 2017, Northwestern’s coaching staff did something they never, ever do. They installed a true freshman offensive lineman as the consistent starter at right tackle. Usually, Northwestern offensive line recruits are redshirted and then eased into the system. That’s what happened to Tommy Doles, Hance, and North, as well as old stalwarts like Shane Mertz and Eric Olson. I just expected Rashawn Slater to get a redshirt year. Heading into the season, the position was completely up for grabs, and Slater just won the job in camp. The competition probably wasn’t the best, given that a true freshman won it, and Slater reward was the unenviable task of becoming Northwestern’s starting right tackle in his first college season. There must’ve been no one behind him.

This gambit was a complete disaster in the first quarter of the season. Slater, at times, just didn’t look like he understood what was happening. This makes sense. However, like the rest of the offensive line, Slater looked smooth and effective in the last six games of the season, and now Northwestern should have a solid starter at right tackle for the next three years. Everything worked out.

(RG) Tommy Doles: A-

If North was Northwestern’s most consistent lineman, Doles was probably the best in terms of athletic ability and upside. He and North were the best players from the 2016 line, and they were even better in 2017. Doles continued to open up space for Northwestern’s RBs, just like he did in 2015-16, but he also emerged as a reliable pass blocker and leader up front. Doles ended up as a Third Team All-Big Ten selection and deserved it. There’s not much more to add. Northwestern will be bringing back a very good right guard next season.

(LG) J.B. Butler: B+

To be honest, I don’t even want to give J.B. Butler a grade. I’ve done offensive line pieces for the last three seasons, and I’ve noticed that J.B. Butler constantly gets moved around the offensive line to fill in for people who don’t pan out to start the season or even a particular game. Why doesn’t anyone trust him? He’s 6-foot-3, 305 pounds and can move his feet. In 2015, he filled in during Northwestern’s many, many O-line injuries. In 2016, he was out of the starting lineup and ended the year by taking Connor Mahoney’s job at left guard before the Pinstripe Bowl. He’s the offensive line’s Mr. Fixit, and you have to root for the former walk-on to get any sort of playing time.

Once again, Butler was cast in a utility role to start 2017. Jared Thomas got the start at left tackle and heralded recruit Blake Hance, rather than getting demoted for his weird and bad 2016, got Butler’s left guard spot. That lasted about a month before Mr. Fixit came back and put everyone in their place. Once Butler retook the left guard spot for good after the Wisconsin disaster, he played quite well and helped solidify the group. If he starts 2018 on the bench, I’m going to write a formal complaint.

I will admit it does seem like Butler gets called for a lot of holding penalties, but I’m not surprised Northwestern’s offensive line got much better once Butler found himself back in the lineup.

Looking ahead to 2018

I know “SEC speed” is a running joke at this point, but while wandering the sidelines at the Music City Bowl I was struck at how much bigger and faster Kentucky’s offensive line seemed to be. Despite the improvement from truly bad to average in 2017, I still think Northwestern’s biggest issue going forward will be this position group.

It’s hard to look at the first five games of the season as anything but an indictment of Northwestern’s offensive line staff. That group looked badly coached and completely at a loss with its protections. I’m not sure it’s a lack of physical ability or conditioning (I mean, the defensive line weight training seems to work), it’s just some bafflingly bad miscommunications and misunderstandings. There were just a lot of “one-man breakdowns” and poor cohesion more than anything else.

Northwestern’s second half turnaround was impressive, and the unit clearly improved, but it does feel like the ceiling of this group going forward is going to be an average Big Ten unit, rather than a nationally feared front like Wisconsin or Michigan. The run blocking needs to get better and the pass blocking needs to stay exactly where it is, which is always difficult. But an average line is fine for Northwestern—clearly the last three years have shown that Northwestern can win a lot of football games with passable offensive line performance—but that apparent ceiling does mean the Wildcats will be prone to complete disasters. Northwestern has almost no margin for error. Having games like Duke (1.0 yards per carry, 4 sacks for 40 lost yards), Wisconsin, or Illinois State where the offensive line torpedoes an entire season is just not a really good way to stay competitive

On the bright side, I do think Northwestern should continue slowly trending upwards. The recruits are getting better, and the group clearly found something that worked in 2017 that it can build on, the first time we can legitimately say that since...2013? For once, it didn’t feel like the offensive line stepped backward. Doles, Butler, Slater and Hance should all be back next year. There’s a gaping hole at the center position, but I think Jared Thomas can finally move over and play the position he’s best at and become a viable option there. Overall, things are looking up.