With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year. Today, the offensive line, which earns an impressive grade based on how thoroughly they out-performed expectations down the stretch of the season.
Overall Grade: B+
This may seem wildly high at first glance, and any disagreement is undoubtedly valid. But a group that had to add three new starters, switched their right tackle to left tackle, and saw their lone senior starter play only his second full season at his position was often downright dominant during the season’s final month, and largely held their own before that. Those accomplishments are certainly worthy of some praise.
Despite some early season miscommunications, the fault of which is still relatively undetermined, this group gelled together well enough in pass protection to largely keep their signal callers off the ground down the stretch. Meanwhile, they were consistently ripping open huge holes in the running game. It may be the fourth straight year that this group has started slowly before showing signs of improvement, but that improvement was rapid and marked in Kurt Anderson’s first year at the helm of the #TrenchCats.
Rashawn Slater: A+
It quickly became apparent that Slater was the best offensive player this team had to offer over the course of the 2019 season. I’d like to posit that, especially with Joe Gaziano graduating, he is actually the best (and maybe even most valuable) player on the entire team. The Texan tackle took the all-important switch from the right side of the line to the left fully in stride, completely protecting his QB’s blind side all season long.
It’s easy to forget, but Slater handled Chase Young, albeit with help at times (the Heisman finalist’s only sack in the Northwestern-OSU matchup came against Gunnar Vogel on the other side of the line), and though AJ Epenesa got the best of him once or twice, he largely held his own there, too. Slater is a rock in pass protection and continues to improve in the run game as well.
Right now, at one of the most important positions on the field, Slater is very clearly among the nation’s elite, with PFF recognizing him as an All-Big Ten caliber player for the third season in a row. This kind of lineman doesn’t come around too often for a team like Northwestern. Cherish him over the course of his senior season.
Jared Thomas: A-
After moving all over the line, Thomas found a home at center last season. And despite some growing pains, during his senior campaign, the team captain was one of the resurgent run game’s stars in the final contests of the year. Undeniably, Thomas led this group, and he consistently did his job, ever-disciplined and energetic along the way.
It may not have shown in the game results, but after a slow start, Thomas kept this group thoroughly on schedule, which is more than you can truly say for the leaders at any other offensive position. For that, the departing center deserves credit.
Sam Gerak: B-
In his first season as a starter, Gerak had his fair share of ups and downs. The right guard laid some impressive blocks in the run game, but seemed to be a part of a few of the early miscommunications in pass protection, and went through a few down periods in the passing game across the whole season. The redshirt sophomore showed plenty of promise, though, and under Anderson’s tutelage, he looks ready to take significant strides in 2020.
Nik Urban: B+
Though he hadn’t started except for as an injury replacement prior to the 2019 season, the redshirt junior still entered the year as one of the most veteran Wildcat linemen. That experience showed. Being next to Slater and Thomas at left guard certainly helped, but Urban was a key cog when it came to making the left side of the line dominant.
Even during the early season passing game struggles, he, Slater, and Thomas largely remained watertight, and after a few apparent lapses in the run game early on, he became a force blocking all over the field as the season continued. This line will have all the experience you could ask for next season, and Urban has shown a definite readiness to be a leader among that group.
Gunnar Vogel: C+
Vogel ceded his spot at right tackle to Ethan Wiederkehr occasionally over the course of the season, and for good going into the last three games. Though that latter replacement was almost certainly the result of an injury, the veteran tackle wasn't exactly having his best season heading into it.
His issues in pass protection continued to crop up all year long, and a slight increase in positive impact on the run game wasn’t nearly enough to make for it. Vogel was a downright liability at times, and simply has to get more consistent to remain a key part of this dangerous unit heading into his senior season.
Charlie Schmidt and Sam Stovall each appeared in nine games, and though Schmidt had a few early breakdowns, Stovall, the redshirt freshman, was solid throughout, and both were in lockstep with the rest of the group by season’s end. Wiederkehr, meanwhile, showed perhaps the most drastic improvement of anybody in the OL room during 2019.
After some really tough early plays, including giving up the sack-strip that ended the Stanford game in place of Slater, when he was called on to start the final three games of the season, the redshirt freshmen impressed in all aspects. Another highly promising piece going forward.
No other offensive lineman played in more than two games.