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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Offensive Line

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An experienced group should help stabilize Northwestern’s new-look offense.

Massachusetts v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer. Spring Quarter ended last week, and it’s time to look ahead to the fall, when, despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for the 2020 season. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. Today we will be discussing the offensive line!

Overview

Returning starters: Rashawn Slater (Sr.), Sam Gerak (Jr.), Nik Urban (Sr.) Gunnar Vogel (Sr.)

Key Losses: Jared Thomas (Graduated), Cam Kolwich (Graduated), Jason Goosen (Graduated)

Returners: Charlie Schmidt (So.), Ethan Wiederkehr (Jr.), Conrad Rowley (So.), Sam Stovall (So.), Payne He’Bert (So.),

Redshirt First-Years: Dom D’Antonio, Connor Foster, Zachary Franks

Newcomers: Peter Skoronski, Josh Priebe, Ben Wrather

It was hard to find bright spots in a horrid offense that was statistically the worst in the Big Ten and one of the worst in FBS last season. That being said, the offensive line was clearly not the cause of this destruction.

With COVID-19 taking away spring ball and the ‘Cats potentially having new QB under center, the O-Line’s combined experience and time played together will be crucial for Northwestern’s offense next season.

Along with a group led by three seniors, including preseason All-American, Rashawn Slater, the three new first-years bring a lot of talent to Evanston.

Key Player

Rashawn Slater

After grading at 75 and 76.6 in 2017 and 2018, Rashawn Slater graded out at 90.1 by Pro Football Focus in 2019. He ranked fourth in the country behind only Tristan Wirfs and Andrew Thomas, both first round picks this past April, as well as Penei Sewell, a potential top three pick in 2021 NFL Draft.

At 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, Slater has the size, speed and versatility to thrive at the next level. He comes from an extremely athletic family — his father, Reggie played in the NBA for nearly a decade.

2019 was Slater’s first season starting at left tackle (he started at right tackle in both 2017 and 2018). At this position, he was one of the best pass-blockers in the nation, allowing only five pressures on 355 passing attempts.

If Slater can grow a little more and continue his great form from 2019, he should hear his name called in the first few rounds of next year’s draft.

Big Questions

Can an experienced offensive line take a giant leap forward in Mike Bajakian’s first season?

As a group in 2019, Northwestern’s offensive line was stable but not spectacular. It allowed 23 sacks on the year, just under two per game — ranked 55th in the nation.

Sacks were the least of the O-Line’s concerns last year, as the quarterback group Northwestern employed was under constant pressure. This was seen in their combined 50 percent completion percentage.

Conversely, in the run game, the line looked especially strong and led NU’s running backs to a solid 180.1 yards-per-game, which ranked 44th in the nation.

With the talent and experience in this group, there’s no reason to think they can’t propel into the top 25 in both pressures and sacks allowed.

Will the high-profile first-year group step into immediate impact roles?

While the O-Line should have a lot of depth behind four returning starters, the group of three first-years, led by top-20 linemen recruit Peter Skoronski, is one of the most talented to ever come to Northwestern.

With Jared Thomas having graduated this spring, there should be an immediate path to playing time for Skoronski behind Charlie Schmidt. He also has the versatility to play at either guard spot if necessary.

While Josh Priebe may find an early role at left guard, Ben Wrather will most likely redshirt due to the large number of players in front of him. Both should have the potential to challenge for starting jobs in 2021.

Depth Chart

2020 Offensive Line Depth Chart

Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Rashawn Slater Sam Gerak Charlie Schmidt Nik Urban Gunnar Vogel
Ethan Wiederkehr Josh Priebe Sam Stovall Peter Skoronski Payne He'Bert