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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 4: Rashawn Slater

The junior is one of two returning starters tasked with anchoring the offensive line.

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

To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.

We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.

Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will factor heavily into the seasons success. For each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

Next up is the man that will be protecting Hunter Johnson’s blind side.

Eli Karp (Rank: 3)

Upright. That is how Hunter Johnson needs to be kept. Running lanes. Those are what Isaiah Bowser needs to be successful and keep this offense on time. The offensive line is paramount to making both of those things happen, and a lot of this season’s overall success hinges on how well the offensive line — with several new faces and a new coach — can execute. Slater has started 26 straight games, and center Jared Thomas started every game at the position last year. Further than that, it’s a mystery.

Almost more important than who else will start in the trenches is Slater’s move from right tackle to left tackle, as Pat Fitzgerald told reporters at a spring practice luncheon. Slater will be the one protecting Johnson’s blind side and making sure he stays upright. Without a viable left tackle, it is hard for any offense to function.

With such an inexperienced group of starters on the o-line this season, Slater is going to have to be as good, if not better than his rating last year as the fourth-best offensive tackle in the Big Ten, according to PFF. The Texas native is so high on my list since I believe there are more question marks on offense than defense right now.

Sure, there are issues about fitting pieces up front defensively, but we’ve seen Mike Hankwitz make situations like this work before. Losing three-fifths of your starting offensive line is more impactful. Slater will be tasked with stabilizing a Northwestern unit that has been shaky historically, but with a year of development from last year and some Trench Cat Magic per new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, he could become a cornerstone of this offense.

Noah Coffman (Rank: 8)

Look, there’s no question that Rashawn Slater is the best returning Northwestern offensive lineman. Depending how high you are on Isaiah Bowser and the way you view line play, he might even be the most valuable returning member of the Wildcat offense. But despite a switch to the left side of the line that is new for this year, the junior tackle is largely a known commodity.

Slater impressed everyone around the Northwestern program with his first two seasons at right tackle, avoiding the regression that struck similar lineman early in the Cushing era after dazzling freshman campaigns. He is one of the more reliable pass blockers NU has had in years, and does his part in the run game. Tasked to protect Hunter Johnson’s blind side this season, Slater’s role will continue to be important, which is why I put him on my list.

But the unknown quantities are arguably much more crucial. If the Wildcats can’t maintain consistency across their offensive line, it doesn’t matter how good Slater plays: as we’ve seen over the past several years, savvy defenses will flood the weak points.

Rashawn Slater has a hand in everything the Northwestern offense will try to do this year, but unless his line mates have his back, his solo production won’t be all that important with regards to team success.