As summer gets underway and we get closer (hopefully!) to college football’s return, Inside NU is carrying on an annual tradition by counting down the players our staff has judged as most important to the team’s success in the coming season.
The definition of importance in this setting is, of course, up for interpretation, but that just makes this exercise all the more intriguing and, potentially, revealing. If you want to check out last year’s list, follow this link, and if you need a refresher on our overall rankings this time around, click on this one.
For each placement on the list, we’ve enlisted two of our writers to debate the merits of the player and their ranking. As we get into the top three, and his buzz continues to ascend, it’s time to talk about Northwestern’s star left tackle.
Noah Coffman (6)
For the second consecutive season, Rashawn Slater comes into training camp as the best and most consistent player on the Northwestern offense. This time around, I’d go as far as to say he’s currently not only the best player on the entire team but on track to be the best offensive lineman of at least the Pat Fitzgerald era. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has Slater graded as (takes deep breath) the highest-graded returning run blocker in the Big Ten, the highest-graded returning pass blocker in the Big Ten, the third-best lineman and pass-blocker in the Big Ten last year period, and the second-best returning tackle in the entire country. Whew.
There’s a reason the Sugar Land, Texas native has been placed in the first round of multiple recent 2021 NFL draft mocks. In the past three years, the senior has displayed both remarkable consistency and an extremely high floor. He has switched sides of the formation, played in front of five different quarterbacks and been a part of the worst Northwestern offense. Through it all, he has maintained an incredible level of play.
While Slater is undeniably going to be the best player on offense, and the stability of a stud at left tackle will be crucial for Mike Bajakian in his first season as offensive coordinator, Slater’s lack of relative variance means plenty of other players’ performances will be more crucial to the season at hand. I sure hope he can somehow kick it up to an even higher notch in the final year of what is already an illustrious Wildcat career, but either way the team will need plenty more than just his personal success to achieve its goals.
Ben Finkelstein (3)
Whoever lines up at quarterback this season will be the catalyst. They’ll dictate the way the offense runs every play. While skill positions might help to elevate the signal caller’s play, one player has the ability to protect that quarterback better than anyone else, while also making crucial contributions in the run game.
In 2019, Rashawn Slater was earned a 90.1 grade from PFF. To put that in perspective, only four left tackles in the country were given higher grades. Two of the three, Tristan Wirfs and Andrew Thomas, were taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, while the other, Penei Sewell, has been mocked as high as the number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
We’ve seen what Slater can do to opposing pass rushers, but this season with Mike Bajakian calling plays, Slater will likely need to have the biggest impact on the ground. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, the senior is a big-bodied athlete with extreme athleticism and versatility, both of which will be necessary in the new offensive scheme.
Slater has largely flown under the radar, especially outside of NU circles, but the hype around him has built recently. He could end up as one of the most recognizable names in college football by winter.