Despite Northwestern’s strong 10-win season in 2015, there’s still a great deal of improvement to be made at offensive line. The Wildcats were plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season. However, if NU can solidify a starting five that works consistently and cooperatively all season, the Cats’ offense will take a massive step forward.
With a lineup composed largely of upperclassmen, NU’s offensive line struggled to develop any continuity, as 10 different Cats players started at line throughout last season. In addition, NU had significant trouble with pass protection. They ranked No. 101 out of 128 schools in adjusted sack rate, a metric that modifies sack rate based on strength of schedule.
In addition to the problems the offensive line had with protecting then-redshirt-freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson last season, statistics surprisingly show that the Cats’ run-blocking was also poor. Although running back Justin Jackson ran for more than 1,400 yards last season during his sophomore campaign, it was more a result of Jackson’s volume and talent than the line’s run-blocking.
NU ranked No. 110 in the country in power success rate, or the conversion rate of runs that are two yards or less. On top of this, the Cats found themselves at below-average in six other run-blocking statistics. The offensive line certainly has room to grow in 2016, but if the Cats can establish stability, their entire offense has potential to thrive.
The Cats’ offensive line is mostly veterans. Senior Eric Olson was a staple at right tackle for NU last year, and he should continue to do so in his final year. In addition, coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated that senior Connor Mahoney will start at left guard.
The youngest projected starter on the line is sophomore Blake Hance, who ended up starting eight games for the Cats as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
The position that remains up in the air for NU is center. Senior Ian Park and junior Brad North both spent time at center last season. In addition, whoever loses the position battle may be able to challenge 6th-year-senior Shane Mertz for his job at right guard.
The Cats also have young talent in sophomores Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, as well as redshirt-freshmen Jared Thomas, Adam Lemke-Bell, and Andrew Otterman. However, unless the injury bug strikes NU’s starters again, these players likely won’t see much playing time this season.
NU needs a balanced offense this year, and that means an offensive line that gives Thorson more time to throw. With three to four seniors projected to start at offensive line for the Cats, they have the potential to use their experience to create a steady, high-chemistry offensive line that allows NU’s offense to take huge strides forward.