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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Offensive line

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This could be the most important unit on the team.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

For the second part of our 2018 Summer Guide, we move onto position previews. For each position, we’ll outline personnel, key players, and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

We now close out the offense with the O-line.

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): G J.B. Butler (16), C Jared Thomas (3 at tackle), T Rashawn Slater (12), G Tommy Doles (25), G/T Blake Hance (35)

Key losses: C Brad North (31 starts)

Other returners: C Sam Gerak (R-Fr.), G Cam Kolwich (So.), Jason Goosen (So.), Nik Urban (So.), Gunnar Vogel (So.), Ethan Wiederkehr (R-Fr.), Jesse Meyler (So.), Trey Klock (Sr.)

Newcomers: Wyatt Blake (Fr.), Willy Boatman (Fr.), Charlie Schmidt (Fr.), Payne He’Bert (Fr.), Sam Stovall (Fr.)

The only real loss on the line is Brad North, who was a stalwart at center for the past several seasons. Center is a cerebral position that requires a significant degree of mental acumen and responsibility, so it could take some time for whoever plays there — likely Jared Thomas or Sam Gerak —to adjust to the checks and calls.

Other than North, most of the line’s production is back. The line improved over the course of last season, but still wasn’t at the level needed for Northwestern’s offense to take a huge step forward. The offense’s adjusted sack rate ranked 77th in the country, and it ranked 97th in adjusted line yards in the running game (in addition to being ranked 82nd overall in offensive S&P+. So, there must be improvement for NU to be competitive in the Big Ten West. With so many returners, that improvement will probably need to come from player development, as opposed to new personnel.

Key player:

TBD

This is a cop-out answer, but there really is no one player that will define the line. Rashawn Slater was the only lineman included on our list of most important players for next season, and it very could be him. He’s probably the most important because he has the most potential, and he could very well develop into one of the conference’s better offensive tackles, which is no small accomplishment, especially for Northwestern. After an impressive campaign, Slater could provide the plus-level tackle that NU has lacked in past seasons.

But, improvements from other linemen could have a similar impact. And for a unit for which cohesion dictates success in many ways, it’s tough to single out one player. If Blake Hance or Gunnar Vogel can take hold of the left tackle spot (or right tackle if Slater bumps to the left), it would help a ton. As previously mentioned, there are some unknowns at center, which have to get sorted out. The guards are probably the most solidified spots on the line with experienced players in Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, but both have been far from dominant or elite thus far in their careers.

For the line to take the next step, multiple players will have to be better than they were last season. Quite frankly, it doesn’t necessarily matter which players they are. It just has to happen if the line is to play well.

Big question:

Satirical answer: How early will Inside NU commenters call for line coach Adam Cushing’s job? Or in an astonishing turn of events, will they at all?

Real answer: Will Clayton Thorson have time to throw on passing downs?

There are also questions about the running game; remember all those times last season when Justin Jackson was all but nullified and the rushing attack was basically nonexistent? That can’t happen again.

But, Northwestern was also dreadful on passing downs, and that can’t happen again either. NU’s S&P+ on passing downs was 113th in the country. 113th! Somehow, the offense managed to run the ball pretty well on passing downs, but that pass protection struggled mightily, hence NU being ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in sacks allowed. Thorson always appears to be running for his life, and long-hitting, explosive passing plays simply have not had sufficient time to develop. Part of that is on the receivers, but a lot of it is on the offensive line. Time and time again, Pat Fitzgerald comes to a press conference fuming over individual breakdowns on the line, before saying he’ll have to look at the film before he can elaborate.

It would be unfair to say we understand the inner-workings or blocking concepts the line uses, but the issues are often clear. When somebody runs past you or manhandles you at the point of attack, it’s tough to get anything positive going. Sure, there are miscommunications and schematic breakdowns. But too many times it’s just players losing one-on-one battles, and that kills an offense and restricts play-calling (except the speed option).

Depth chart:

Offensive line

Left tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
Left tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
Blake Hance J.B. Butler Jared Thomas Tommy Doles Rashawn Slater
Gunnar Vogel Cam Kolwich Sam Gerak Nik Urban Jesse Meyler