Returning starters: Sam Gerak (Sr.), Peter Skoronski (So.), Ethan Wiederkehr (R-Sr.)
Key losses: Nik Urban (graduation), Gunnar Vogel (Chicago Bears),
Returners: Josh Priebe (So.), Charlie Schmidt (Jr.), Ben Wrather (So.), Dom D’Antonio (R-So.), Zachary Franks (R-So.)
After Rashawn Slater opted out of the 2020 football season, expectations were relatively low for Kurt Anderson’s “Trench Cats”. Fortunately, Anderson’s unit surpassed all predictions and performed well last season. While the offensive line struggled at times to create holes for the running backs, the pass protection was much better as NU’s quarterbacks were sacked 13 times in 2020 compared to 23 occasions in 2019, a drop in the per-game average from 1.9 to a more acceptable 1.4 sacks given up each contest.
After a tremendous freshman season, Peter Skoronski will step in as the de facto leader of the unit in 2021 and he will be tasked with protecting the blindside of either Ryan Hilinski or Hunter Johnson. Barring an injury, Skoronski is on pace to become a first round pick in two years, so seeing if he can continue his blocking dominance in 2021 will be something to watch.
On the other side of the line, Ethan Wiederkehr will be the starting right tackle according to Matt Fortuna’s latest article in The Athletic. Wiederkehr was serviceable as a swing player at both tackle and guard two years ago and became the starting right guard last season. His play as the elder statesman of the unit will be key to the overall success of the line and the offense as a whole.
On the interior, Sam Gerak returns as the starting center after starting in 21 games the past two seasons. Gerak has been a dependable starter, but for Northwestern’s offense to reach the next level, both he and the new starting guards will need to open more holes on the interior for Northwestern’s running backs. At those guard positions, Fortuna reported in the same article that it appears Josh Priebe and Charlie Schmidt are the favorites to start at left and right guard, respectively. With highly touted freshman recruit Caleb Tiernan in the room, along with sophomores Ben Wrather and Dom D’Antonio, Northwestern should have competitive depth to withstand injuries or poor performance from the starters.
In the comment section of Matt Fortuna’s recent article, he replied to a comment stating that Wiederkuhr kicking out to right tackle this season came directly from Pat Fitzgerald. With that being said, Fitz likely could have indicated something similar about Priebeas Fortuna wrote that, “Northwestern might have found an answer this spring in sophomore Josh Priebe.”
With offers from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn and Miami (Fl.), Priebe came to Northwestern as a highly-touted recruit. Entering his sophomore year, he has an opportunity to step in as Northwestern’s starting left guard. If Priebe can do a solid job at that position, he would convert a question mark entering the season into a strength. With Priebe, Skoronski and Schmidt all locked in as solid to well above-average starters, Northwestern would have an upper tier offensive line in the Big Ten.
Will the interior offensive line perform well enough to support a solid running game?
Northwestern’s biggest weakness offensively last season was the rushing attack. When facing solid defensive opponents, that part of the offense completely faded into the background. A large part of that can be attributed to Northwestern’s interior offensive line, but another part of the issue can be attributed to a lack of healthy, quality running backs. Thus far, all reports out of camp state that Cam Porter has made significant strides and will be a workhorse for Northwestern next season. If the interior offensive line can make solid strides, Northwestern’s ground game should be greatly improved, which would be a huge relief for either Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hilinski or anyone who takes a snap under center for the ‘Cats in 2021.