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2023 Northwestern football position reviews: Offensive line

It was another year of frequent miscues for Northwestern in the trenches.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

In the next iteration of our position-by-position evaluations from Northwestern football’s 2023 season, we’ll take a deeper dive into the Wildcats’ offensive line — which is now mired in uncertainty after the departure of Josh Priebe and with OL coach Kurt Anderson’s future unknown.

Overall Grade: C-

Admittedly, without consensus All-American Peter Skoronski and more regular starters in Charlie Schmidt and Ethan Wiederkehr, a lower level of play was to be expected from Northwestern’s offensive line in 2023. In many ways, however, the unit failed to even meet its relative goals. For at least the third straight year, the Wildcats’ OL was generally a liability, if not one of the weaker units on the team — failing to jell, frequently nullifying positive gains and overarchingly demonstrating a lack of consistency.

On the season, the Wildcats’ starting five allowed 27 sacks and 154 pressures; both of those figures were the worst in the Big Ten by a considerable margin. Collectively, the team’s Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade was 102nd out of 133 FBS teams. There were multiple games (e.g., vs. Penn State, at Nebraska, etc.) where the Wildcats’ offensive line was simply overmatched, and didn’t give whoever was under center a fighting chance in the pocket. Additionally, NU ranked 87th in run-blocking grade, with lanes largely not available for whoever was toting the rock.

However, some growth did manifest itself as the year progressed. NU’s trench ‘Cats permitted fewer than 10 pressures in the team’s final four regular-season games. Additionally, Northwestern had two of its highest rushing totals against Wisconsin and Illinois, something which underscores that more solidified work was done up front in the latter portions of 2023.

Player Grades

Caleb Tiernan: C+

In the early parts of the year, Tiernan appeared trending in the wrong direction as he switched from right to left tackle. The junior never earned higher than a 63 PFF grade in each of Northwestern’s first five games. His stats in that span: 15 pressures and one sack allowed.

However, the 6-foot-7 tackle seemed to make strides as the season endured, yielding no further sacks and only 11 additional pressures in the next seven games. Likewise, Tiernan’s pass-blocking prowess began to show at Illinois and at Wisconsin when he posted grades above 82 in that category, per PFF.

At the same time, penalties were a major flaw with Tiernan — his six were the second-most on Northwestern. As he enters his fourth season in Evanston and third as a starter, Tiernan will need to hone in on those types of lapses and his hand placement. If he does so, he has the intangibles and experience to become an above-average starter in the conference, and a cornerstone for David Braun’s second offensive line.

Josh Priebe: B-

Priebe allowed only 17 pressures all year, which was the fewest among any NU starting offensive lineman. Consequently, he garnered Third Team All-Big Ten honors.

At the same time, Priebe posted just a 62 overall grade. The big problem? He gave up four sacks on those 17 pressures, plus racked up four penalties.

Although it was gratifying to be able to see Priebe play all 12 games after consecutive seasons of year-ending injuries, his play didn’t totally meet expectations in 2023. Now off to Michigan, Priebe will look to work under Sherrone Moore, who has helped craft consecutive Joe Moore Award-winning units and a slew of NFL talent.

Ben Wrather: D

Wrather’s 46.7 PFF grade was not only the worst among NU’s starting five, but also the lowest among all Power Five centers to play 500 or more snaps. Point blank, he had a much maligned season.

The largest qualm for Wrather were penalties, of which he accrued seven. On top of that, he was often overmatched in contests that featured premier interior defensive linemen, including Johnny Newton at Illinois and against Penn State, a game in which he gave up a whopping seven pressures.

For all of the season, Wrather never earned higher than a 59.3 single-game PFF grade. If he does elect to return for another season, there will be considerable things to ameliorate if he wants to remain Northwestern’s man in the middle.

Dom D’Antonio: C

D’Antonio permitted both the most sacks (five) and pressures (27) on the ‘Cats, but he remained spotless in the penalty department — something that was often refreshing after a litany of mental mistakes. Another asset was durability, as his 855 snaps played was tops on the purple and white.

Like Wrather, D’Antonio will have the ability to return for another season; if he does, he’d figure to slot right back in as Northwestern’s starting RG. Otherwise, the Wildcats will have to fill his void, either by elevating a budding young O-lineman or by snagging someone from the transfer portal.

Josh Thompson: C+

Thompson made a strong early impression when he came in relief against UTEP, allowing zero pressures on 27 snaps in Northwestern’s win. However, he struggled shortly thereafter by allowing nine pressures and two sacks in NU’s games against Minnesota and Penn State.

By the end of the season, though, Thompson appeared more comfortable as the team’s primary right tackle. He never gave up a sack beyond Week Five, and he relented just four pressures in NU’s final four contests. It’s not a coincidence that his three highest-graded performances of the year came in Weeks 11-13.

At 6-foot-5, the junior appears to form a solid tandem with Tiernan (coincidentally, a fellow Michigan resident) on the perimeter for Northwestern’s 2024 offensive line. Thompson will have to work on consistency and opposing higher-level rushers, but his talent is evident as he ventures into his senior season.

Zach Franks: D-

Franks allowed a staggering seven pressures and four sacks in only 64 opportunities to begin the 2023 campaign against the Scarlet Knights and Miners. To be candid, he was a major reason for Northwestern’s early offensive struggles, because Ben Bryant dealt with pressure off his right side on nearly a snap-by-snap basis. As a result, Braun benched Franks and turned to Thompson — something which proved fruitful.

The senior played only 27 snaps the rest of the way, but he was pivotal in Allegiant Stadium after an injury to Jordan Knox forced Thompson to move to left guard. Franks surrendered only one pressure down the stretch, something which enabled the Wildcats to take the lead on an eventual game-winning possession in their postseason matchup with Utah.

Jordan Knox: Incomplete

Knox’s first and only start was generally an effective one: before his injury, he posted an 82.7 pass-blocking grade against Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. Yet, his run blocking (56.0 grade) was not at the same caliber.

Generally, Knox saw time on 132 snaps in eight games, primarily as a lead blocker/fullback (even wearing No. 93) or a sixth offensive lineman on jumbo packages. Expect the incoming sophomore to headline the competition for one of NU’s starting guard spots as next season approaches.

Jackson Carsello: Incomplete

Carsello got the start in Lincoln following Northwestern’s bye and played the entire game, but the Cornhuskers proved a struggle. The junior had a 41.7 PFF grade and gave up two sacks in lieu of Wrather, who returned to the starting lineup the following week.

All told, Carsello played 99 snaps in 2023, which is hardly a sufficient sample size for full evaluation. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him take over for Wrather in 2024.