“It’s frustrating film to watch, because we really think we beat ourselves,” said Tommy Doles of last year’s matchup with Duke. “I saw poor fundamentals, guys not playing as hard as we should have, and that’s stuff we take pride in. We’re really fired up for this game.”
After getting beat down by the front seven of the Blue Devils to the tune of four sacks and just 66 rushing yards on 16 carries (a mid-game injury to Justin Jackson didn’t help in that regard), the Wildcats began figuring things out up front. While it wasn’t until a couple of game into the Big Ten slate that the front five really fired on all cylinders, Doles and his fellow linemen clearly view their performance against the Blue Devils as a low point.
One year later, things have certainly changed. Northwestern, riding a nine game win streak, is coming off a performance against Purdue in which the offensive line didn’t allow a sack, while setting Jeremy Larkin up for nearly 150 yards on the ground. But, as Doles will tell you, that game served as somewhat of a tuneup. “I think we’ll face harder pass rushes than we did last week, but our experience and principles showed there. We’ll continue to grow.”
Duke will be a stiffer test. For one thing, they return seven of their top eight linemen, along with all four of their top linebackers. The Blue Devils beat Northwestern with an exceedingly young front seven last year, and those key players will still be there to haunt the Wildcats this time around.
Of course, Northwestern has plenty of returners on their side. Pro Football Focus’ top freshman right tackle, Rashawn Slater, remains there for his sophomore campaign across from senior Blake Hance. Joining Doles at guard is fellow senior JB Butler. But though those four guys proved themselves down the stretch last season, they will have to withstand a loss. Graduated center Brad North, who helped key the line’s second-half resurgence, has left big shoes to fill.
Redshirt junior Jared Thomas actually entered the program as a center. Over the last two years, however, he’s seen time at every spot along the line, even starting at right tackle during last year’s Duke fiasco. Tapped as the starting center for 2018, Thomas has quickly become acclimated to a more sturdy role. “If we had a rookie in there at center, we might need to help him out, but Jared’s not,” said Doles. “Jared knows what he’s doing, he knows all the calls.”
For Doles, the settled nature of the starting five this season, in contrast to last year’s seemingly constant positional battles, has helped the line work together. “[Playing next to Jared] started in spring ball, and I think by the time we got to fall camp it felt like I’d been playing with him the whole time.” He added that getting into a rhythm had really gotten the group to the next level: “It’s cool when offensive lines start speaking their own language. We’ll make some of the playbook calls, but when you’re able to just have him say something quick and know what he means by it [and vice-versa]...that’s when you know you have a group coming together.”
Thomas echoed that sentiment. “I think offensive line is very similar to DB. Obviously they are in more space than we are, but when you have the same guys out there all the time, you build a certain comfortability knowing that you know where a certain guy is gonna be on a certain play.” The Indianapolis native, who rooms with two defensive backs, added that playing all over the line in the past also helps his prep: “It really helped me understand what everyone else is doing, what their responsibilities are, and that makes my job a lot easier.”
Despite last week’s near disaster when a snap hit Cameron Green as he was coming in motion (Thomas told me he would take the blame, calling it a silent count miscommunication and saying the issue had been dealt with afterwards in practice), he seems comfortable with any quarterback behind him. “All throughout the offseason, no matter who it was, I was making sure us as centers were getting with every quarterback...so when preseason camp came around, there wasn’t a new acclimation period. Whoever’s back there, [I] gotta get the ball to ‘em, protect ‘em, and go from there.”
If Northwestern’s offense wants to distance itself from last season’s anemic performance against this talented Duke front, it will need to hold its own Saturday.
“When you’ve got a group that can come together, know your responsibilities, be watching film together, I think there’s a deeper level of cohesion,” Doles told me.
As long as that cohesion holds up under fire, Thomas, Doles, and their three returning companions could be spearheading a 2-0 start pretty soon.