As we continue to prepare for the 2023 season, today we look at arguably the most important position in football, the offensive line. Amidst heavy turnover, the ‘Cats will have multiple new faces in the trenches this season.
Returning Starters: Josh Priebe (Sr.), Caleb Tiernan (R-So.)
Key Losses: Peter Skoronski, Vincent Picozzi, Ethan Wiederkehr, Charlie Schmidt, Conrad Rowley
Returning members: Josh Thompson (R-So.), Dom D’Antonio (R-Sr.), Jackson Carsello (R- So.), Braeden Edwards (R-So.), Ben Wrather (Sr.), Deuce McGuire (R-Fy.), Nick Herzog (R-Fy.), Luka Trifunovic (R-Sr.), Zachary Franks (R-Sr.)
New Additions: Jordan Knox (Fy.), Anthony Birsa (Fy.), Alexander Doost (Fy.)
Flashback to opening day a year ago, only one of these names was on the field when the ‘Cats played in Dublin. Now, there is a strong possibility that NU will have five new players across the O-line when it takes the field in Piscataway this September. The ‘Cats lost multiple stalwarts among their protection unit, with unanimous All-American Peter Skoronski, sixth-year Ethan Wiederkehr and center Charlie Schmidt all leaving the program after the 2022 campaign. The trio barely missed a snap all season, playing in all 12 games and combining for 2,614 snaps.
The only returning member of the position group to start in Week Zero last year was Priebe, who slotted in at left guard. Priebe held down the position for half the season before he was carted off with a knee injury, presumably a torn ACL, against Maryland. His status for Week One is unknown, as interim head coach David Braun declined to speak on specific injuries at the Big Ten Media Days.
Right now, there seems to be an open competition for every spot on the line, especially on the interior, where the center and both guard jobs are up for grabs. NU will have to rely upon unproven members of the position group to make the offense work.
G/T Josh Priebe
If what former head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in the spring remains true under Coach Braun, the expectation is that Priebe will bump outside to protect the blindside and play left tackle. For the last four years, left tackle has been NU’s best position on the field. The ‘Cats have produced back-to-back top-15 picks with Skoronski and Rashawn Slater holding down the fort. In the last four seasons, NU’s blindside protectors have only given up five sacks, so the pressure on Priebe to perform is immense.
Even though the rising senior has performed well on the interior, kicking out to tackle is a whole different beast. Priebe will no longer be contending with defensive tackles, who use their power to overwhelm opponents, but with the premier edge rushers of the Big Ten. He will have to cover more ground and will be left on an island and expected to win — not as easy as having a double-team assignment with the center.
In addition to learning a new position, Priebe will still be working his way back from a significant knee injury. Sure, he can test it in practice, but it is difficult to recreate the adrenaline and speed of a live game. Priebe will be expected to generate a large amount of power from his legs to kick in his pass set, putting exorbitant pressure on his knees. Knee injuries can be very difficult for offensive linemen to recover from, so whether Priebe can make a full-season comeback remains to be seen.
No one is expecting, or even asking, Priebe to be as good as his two predecessors, but if he can be a solid tackle, it will go a long way in supporting the Wildcats' offense. No. 68 is a phenomenal puller and moves very well for an offensive lineman. With this ability to block in the open field, Northwestern will use him as a lead blocker on counters and on sweeps. Furthermore, with presumed starting quarterback Ben Bryant being right-handed, it will be Priebe’s job to block his blindside. If the rising senior can keep Bryant upright, it will allow the sixth-year quarterback time to look downfield and find the open receiver. With the struggles the QB room has had over the past two seasons, giving Bryant time to go through his reads is crucial if NU’s offense wants to succeed in 2023.
Who starts on the interior?
Schmidt, Weiderkehr, Picozzi and Rowley took nearly all the snaps last season on the inside of the offensive line, and none of them will don the purple and white in 2023. So the question is, who will replace them? Assuming the tackle position is filled by Priebe and Tiernan, that leaves the other three positions void. The only other person who took snaps at center last season was Wrather, but he only had 11 plays at the position, so it feels safe to assume that the job is anybody’s to win. At the guard spot, Wrather saw 159 snaps, the most among the reserves, and no other player on the 2023 roster had more than 11 snaps at either guard slot.
The answer is that no one knows who will be in the huddle come early September, and training camp will be extremely important to try and forecast who will take the field for the Wildcats against Rutgers. These jobs are for the taking, even for first-year players like Jordan Knox. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the position group, and offensive line coach Kurt Anderson will have to whip his five into shape quickly during camp if Northwestern wants to mount a comeback season.