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Northwestern football’s offseason questions: offensive line (and punter!)

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The Wildcats have a new line coach, a new quarterback, and will be replacing three starters up front.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

As spring practice begins to come to a close, Inside NU will be embarking on a new series of stories regarding the most important questions for Wildcat football to address in the offseason. With coaches and players coming and going and potential position battles galore, Northwestern has plenty to focus on going into its season opener in late August. With these stories, we will highlight what we feel are the most important questions that this team is facing as they try to build on nearly unprecedented success. Here is the first question:

Will the offensive line be able to repeat or improve upon their solid performance down the stretch of 2018?

Under offensive line coach Adam Cushing, who has now moved on to take the head job at Eastern Illinois, the Wildcat offensive line was often solid, but never great. One of their best years, however, was last season, in which the experienced group gelled well down the stretch to create holes for Isaiah Bowser and keep Clayton Thorson off the ground as much as they ever have.

This year, though, in Kurt Anderson’s first go around at the line’s helm, they will have three starters to replace. Only rising senior center Jared Thomas and rising junior tackle Rashawn Slater remain from last year’s top five linemen. Guards JB Butler and Tommy Doles, one of the most productive guard combos Northwestern has seen at the position, have graduated along with Blake Hance.

In his two seasons as a full time starter, Slater played virtually exclusively at right tackle. But, as Anderson confirmed to Inside NU last week, he will be switching sides to replace Hance in the left tackle slot. “With his experience, and his fluidity, it’s very natural for him. At the end of the day, we have a lot of right-handed quarterbacks...you’d always like to know that the back side, your blind side, is protected,” Anderson said.

“It’s a pretty big change,” said Slater. “It’s just flipped, which is maybe more hard than it sounds.”

According to Anderson, Slater’s position wouldn’t be the only thing undergoing a shift with a change in leadership. “It’s all new terminology, it’s all new technique,” he said. “Even if the three guys were to come back, the only benefit they’d have is experience...everybody’s on the same page now, with new terminology, new footwork, new eye progressions.”

The fresh start should be beneficial with regards to competition for the offensive line, but as Anderson (who had a successful stint with Buffalo and a less successful period at Arkansas before coming to Evanston) said, it’s going to be a long process. “We won’t know who the starting five is until two weeks out from Stanford, and [even then] those things can change...you can’t be shocked when your number is called.”

Open competition can certainly be expected from Anderson, who opined that “the number one killer of offensive linemen is complacency.” But even if he wanted to, the new coach, who raved about his “assimilation” with Northwestern football’s culture across the past year, wouldn’t have a lot of choice. Of the candidates for the other three spots, only Sam Gerak and Nik Urban got significant playing time with the main group last year, with Gunnar Vogel seeing spotty minutes early on at tackle as well.

“The excuse of ‘it’s a young line’ is no longer a thing,” said Thomas. “We all know the expectation, what we need to do when we step onto the field...we’re gonna make mistakes, that’s how we learn.”

The veteran center certainly seemed to recognize the inherent differences between this season and last season from the perspective of development and preparedness: “[This year] it’s about learning and grasping what Coach Anderson is teaching us as quickly as possible, whereas last year we had a bunch of guys who already knew what to do...in both aspects we’ve done a great job of attacking it.”

Though an official starting quarterback had not yet been named, Thomas assured me he and the line were comfortable with all five guys, though he would be looking to get extra reps as soon as possible with the starter.

With the group still in flux and undergoing a learning process late into spring, Northwestern’s offensive line clearly has a long way to go until game one. Anderson and his pair of returning starters have a significant task on their hands in trying to change the base of the line while adding new parts to it.

If the flashes of ability that guys like Gerak and Urban showed last year continue, Northwestern could see their new front five use a change in language and technique to mold together and even improve as a unit. But just one cog being out of whack with the machine as a whole could ruin things, and with a new system and three new guys in place, the amount of moving parts in the Wildcat offensive line is at an all-time high.

It’s a transition year for the Wildcats in the trenches, but for the team to fulfill its lofty goals, it’s one they’ll need to make count.

So who is going to punt it, anyways?

A brief conversation with special teams coach Jeff Genyk clarified a couple of things after the departure of Jake Collins. First, Trey Finison, the true freshman, will compete for a job at kicker along with Drew Luckenbaugh and (when he returns) Charlie Kuhbander.

Secondly, the punting job looks like a three way competition. Dan Kubiuk, somewhat surprisingly, will be returning for a sixth year of eligibility, though he won’t be healthy enough to kick until August. Competing alongside him will be Cody Gronewold and Jake Genyk.

Another possibility is the addition of a graduate transfer, as Northwestern did last season with Collins.