DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE PART 6: OFFENSIVE LINE
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 8 players
2014: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-
True Grade C+
2015: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-/C+
True Grade C+
2016: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-
True Grade C+
2017: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade C+
True Grade C+
Brandon Vitabile. Ian Park. Brad North. Tommy Doles. Jared Thomas. Rashawn Slater.
These six players have two things in common.
1.They are all excellent football players.
2.They were all recruited in different classes.
We’ll go deep on this in a second, but the root of the problem is right here. Northwestern almost always recruits one impact lineman in every class. Northwestern doesn’t recruit two.
Now again: That’s an impressive group of players. If this was the running back position, that level of talent would be more than enough, for the reasons we covered in that section. But offensive line is a different animal.
Take the 2014 window. At the same time that there were 10 running backs on scholarship, there were NINETEEN offensive linemen on scholarship. The reason for this is simple: Offensive linemen aren’t normally expected to play until they have been in the program for several years.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, offensive line is a very difficult position to play, and it can take years to learn the ins and outs of pass pro, pull blocks, and working as a unit. Second, offensive linemen often need several years to pack on weight and finish growing. This leads us to the parenthesis in the OL Cut Grade we issued.
We established a cut line of 8 players because offensive linemen tend to get banged up. You need one back up at center, guard, and tackle, and most likely, you need guys who can slot in at either guard or center in reserve. But a regular 8-man cut line doesn’t go far enough. We established a second TRUE Cut Line that can only include players who are entering at least their 3rd year in the program. We did this because true and redshirt freshmen can’t be expected to factor into this equation. We literally know this to be true.
Shall we remind you? Let’s take a trip back to summer 2017. Based on raw cutline, Northwestern would theoretically have been in great shape. Doles, North, Thomas, and Slater forming the core of a strong, deep unit.
Here is what was happening in the real world: Northwestern was looking at starting Doles but also two other juniors, one at guard, one at tackle. We know these other two players well. Through no fault of their own, they symbolized Northwestern’s depth issues on the offensive line–because NU tried, and failed, to find other starters.
The most notable of these efforts came in summer 2017. Northwestern coaches knew that in truth, the line was Doles, North, an open tackle slot, two other spots in need of improvement, and a dearth of seasoned players who could challenge for those roles. So NU coaches rolled the dice and grievously violated our True OL Cut Line. Thomas, a true center who could certainly play guard, was pressed into service as a redshirt freshman TACKLE. Our left tackle was pushed over to left guard, and Slater manned the other tackle spot as a true freshman.
The result was a disaster. After several weeks of chaos, NU effectively reverted to the exact same line-up that had started the Pinstripe Bowl months earlier, plus Slater. Of course, by the end of the season, Slater was excellent. But he certainly wasn’t at the start of his true freshman year.
Now, for anyone applying everything we have said here to the 2018 offensive line as a whole: I think we can agree that this past offensive line season was filled with peaks and valleys, and that our line was better at the end of the year than it was for the first half of the year. Now, go game-by-game, and look at the starting five linemen NU put out there. That’s right: It’s the same five guys, week after week. The same five guys who were manning those spots when our line organization course-corrected midway through 2017, with the exception of Thomas replacing the graduated North.
Eventually, that kind of stability can build results. But you know what has to happen? EVERYONE has to stay healthy. We were very, very lucky down the stretch with the health of our offensive line. In fact, you can look at 2018 games in which banged-up linemen started, played a few snaps, and then left the field, and immediately see a drop-off in production.
Basically, your opinion of Northwestern’s offensive line in a given year depends on your opinion of Northwestern’s second best offensive lineman in each class that year. We’re not saying there haven’t been decent #2 players in some classes. We’re saying that Northwestern has certainly not minted 2 stars in the same class. This is a big deal. 18-20 scholarships at a clip of 3-4 per year is a lot of darts to be throwing at the board without 2 bulls-eyes in the same year.
Understand, this doesn’t need to happen every year. It’s just needs to happen occasionally. But the impact of hitting on multiple players even once can be seismic. Look at the Secondary, which, for a different set of reasons, also offers a huge amount of total scholarships. The Matt Harris/Godwin Igwebuike/Kyle Queiro class set Northwestern up for years. A similar situation would produce the same result on the line.
And if the Wildcats could pull this feat off in CONSECUTIVE years? Well…look at Wisconsin’s 2018 line, the one that had roughly 50 preseason features written on it. The makeup of that line? 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 sophomore. Of the four upperclassmen, two were big-time line recruits, and 2 were converted tight ends. That’s the Badger line machine at work, spitting out development year after year.
BOTTOM LINE: The offensive line has been a mix of interrelated problems. First of all, we’re producing less top talent here than at any other position other than running back. Second, there’s a disappointing stability to this production–exactly one great player per year. Third, it’s much more easy to see developmental shortcomings on the offensive line: One Justin Jackson can’t ride in and save the day here.
The flip side is that we may be only a single class away from turning all of this around. Adam Cushing’s last gift to the incoming Kurt Anderson as Line Coach was a very solid 4-player 2019 recruiting class at OL. One player, Zach Franks, was a major recruit who flipped to the Cats from Penn State. The other three are more developmental types. If Franks plays to his potential and just one of the other three turns into a special player, Northwestern’s offensive line could finally take the next step we have all been waiting for.