Northwestern 2014 Spring Ball Preview: Offensive Line
By Aaron Morse
The Wildcats had their offensive line issues in 2013 after only two starters returned from a solid 2012 unit. The 'Cats gave up 35 sacks last season, second-most in the Big Ten. Injuries to running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter didn't help the situation.
The offensive line loses absolutely no one from the final two-deep in 2013. This can either be seen as a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. The optimist would argue that returning the entire two-deep means there are no holes that need to be filled. A unit that had no seniors now has three and should improve. The pessimist would look at last year's performance and worry that 2014 could be a repeat. The reality might very well swing Northwestern's season.
Next In Line
Brad North redshirted last year even though he was the No. 9 center in the country according to Rivals.com. At 6-foot-8, 305 pounds, junior tackle Shane Mertz is the biggest man among the NU offensive linemen and could crack the first team this year. Ideally the starting five will stay healthy so the younger guys aren't tested before they are ready.
Players To Keep An Eye On
A unit that had no senior leaders last year will need seniors Paul Jorgensen, Brandon Vitabile and Jack Konopka to step up if the offense is to succeed. Vitabile has spoken numerous times about the lack of leadership on last year's team as a whole. As he told the Chicago Tribune: "We had some team issues. I was a captain, so I take responsibility for that. I should have been more vocal instead of worrying about my own position group. Everyone has learning curve, and the coaches have tried to help me mature as a leader."
What Is Needed To Be Successful in 2014
Returning to a similar theme, success rests on center Vitabile's leadership. He’s had a nice career at NU, but his unit is returning angry and he needs to set the tone. The return of Venric Mark at running back should make life easier. They also need QB Trevor Siemian to help them out by taking fewer sacks.