There were many reasons Northwestern plummeted from a 10-win team in 2012 to a five-win team in 2013.
Key injuries to Venric Mark and Kain Colter, dropped passes from wide receivers, interceptions, play calling and plain old bad luck contributed to the team’s inability to score. But another factor was the play of the Cats’ offensive line. Pat Fitzgerald even called the unit out at points during the season.
That’s why this year, there will be competition for all five of those spots. And, though spring practice is just getting started, Fitzgerald seems to like what he sees so far.
“Competition is night and day. Night and day for our offensive line compared to last year,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “It’s this whole program. We’re competing to be a championship-level team. Every position’s open, and the guy who does the best and the most consistent and everything we ask him to do is going to be the guy that gets the opportunity to go out there and be the starter when we get ready for the opener. But we’re a long way away from the opener, so all those things will be fluid.”
Last season, despite various backs showing flashes of brilliance following Mark’s injury, the Wildcats ranked just ninth in the Big Ten in rushing. And quarterback Trevor Siemian, thrust into a bigger role after injuries to Colter, was under constant pressure. Northwestern allowed 36 sacks last season, the second-highest total in the conference.
A positive heading into the 2014 campaign is that all five starters on the offensive line return, bringing plenty of experience. But Fitzgerald made it clear he’s going to let everyone compete for these spots, trying every possible combination along the way.
“It could change rep-by-rep, it could change day-by-day across the board. Every position,” he said.
But while improvement on the offensive line will be a focus, it’s a strategy that Fitzgerald is employing all over the field. After all, last season’s lack of success stemmed from many different places.
“Right now I don’t have any starters or backups. I mean that’s not where we’re at right now. We’re a long way away from identifying who those guys are,” Fitzgerald said. “You can pencil in guys that have played a lot of football for us and expect those guys to be in those roles. But you come off a lack of success that we had a year ago, there’s no reason guys should feel comfortable with where they’re at. They need to feel comfortable by improving, if they do that we’ll be fine.”