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Northwestern football season in review: grading the offensive line

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The line was up and down, though it got more consistent as the year went along.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the nine-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. Up now is the offensive line.

Overall grade: B

As they have for three seasons running, the line started poorly. But things improved more than they had in each of the past two seasons down the stretch. There were some near-dominant performances, like against Wisconsin and Iowa, but those games made clunkers against Akron and Duke more head-scratching. As he always has, Clayton Thorson took a lot of sacks, but many were coverage and/or non-mobile-quarterback based.

Northwestern ranked below the top 100 in college football in line yards per carry (both of standard and passing downs), and the offense ranked No. 106 in the country in S&P+. For most teams, that constitutes a down year. But with the flux at running back, the lack of quarterback mobility thanks to Thorson’s injury, and the mediocrity of the past few years all being taken into consideration, this year’s line performance merits a lenient score.

Player grades

Tommy Doles: A-

Doles was once again the most consistent member of this group. The senior captain closed out his career with 37 starts, and the three games this season in which he missed time were noticeable. The guard is a reliable cog in the run game, with enough mobility to pull successfully and enough strength to contain most interior linemen. Doles rarely gives up sacks, and just generally plays consistent football. His absence will leave a significant hole on the right side of the line.

Rashawn Slater: B+

This grade is perhaps a bit unfair to Slater, who is arguably the most talented member of this group. The true sophomore is a victim of his own circumstances to some extent, as he didn’t show a ton of improvement over his phenomenal, out-of-nowhere freshman campaign. He’s got great technique and quickness, is valuable in the run game and is the most reliable pass-blocking tackle Northwestern’s had in a while. I’ll be really intrigued with how Big Ten defenses handle him with the holes almost bound to be present in next year’s line.

Blake Hance: B

Hance really struggled with some of the more talented pass rushers he faced this year, getting beat by Chase Winovich plenty and narrowly avoiding getting completely blown up by Kenny Willekes and Anthony Nelson, among others. But the senior was a valuable run blocker (not often a point of emphasis for left tackles) and managed to tread water against some of the best edge rushers in the NCAA for most of the year. No small feat.

J.B. Butler: B-

Butler was fully replacement-level in his senior season, and I don’t mean that as a diss. After early struggles led to a stint on the bench, the fifth year senior got some fire back, and quite frankly, stopped getting knocked on his ass. Butler was solid, if unspectacular, in the run game, and showed definite year-over-year improvement in terns of pass blocking. I don’t expect his spot to be incredibly difficult to fill, but Butler’s work ethic will be missed.

Jared Thomas: B-

Thomas has had transition mark his Northwestern career. 2017’s right tackle experiment ended in disaster, but for a few games 2018 looked like it might be headed somewhere similar. During the crucial part of Big Ten play, though, Thomas impressed with his easy connection to Thorson, and excelled at not being taken advantage of. For a first year center in the middle of a veteran line, Thomas got the job done. But his role will have to shift next year, as he becomes the veteran in the room.

Reserves: C-

This group was a mixed bag. Nik Urban and Sam Gerak rotated in at both guard spots and showed significant potential, but this team continues to struggle with depth at tackle. Gunnar Vogel looked lost in limited action, and there just hasn’t been a lot of rotation out on the edge. Luckily, the backups weren’t called on for much during the season, but they didn’t engender a ton of confidence heading into 2019.

Verdict/Outlook:

This group is a giant question mark for next year, especially at the second tackle spot. Kurt Anderson entering the picture could be a boon in terms of player development, which seemed to flounder under Adam Cushing: no Northwestern offensive lineman was drafted in his ten year tenure, including 50-game starter Brandon Vitabile and plenty of other comparable recruits to local NFL factories Iowa and Wisconsin. I’m especially excited to see what Slater, along with Gerak and Urban (who seem to have significant potential) can do under new tutelage.