With Northwestern's fourth spring practice in the books, the time was ripe Tuesday morning for Skip Myslenski to examine one of the few position groups in the 'Cats' aresenal that will have to replace a majority of its regulars from 2012 -- the offensive line. He did so by chatting with rising junior center Brandon Vitabile -- now the elder statesman of the group -- and O-line coach Adam Cushing.
* LAST SPRING, as the 'Cats took another step in their preparations for the 2012 season, questions loomed about their offensive line, which had lost a pair of starters. Now it is 12 months later and again their is uncertainty about this unit, which is nicked up, mottled with youth and far, far from a finished product.
But down in the trenches, down there where the foundation for any offensive histrionics lie, that is hardly the case. "Wouldn't want it any other way," offensive line coach Adam Cushing says when reminded that his group is again on the spot this spring.
He laughs loudly as he says this and then continues, "I think the guys are excited. You can ask anyone of those guys, they came here to play. Nobody came here to watch or to wait their turn. So these young guys who have an opportunity to get a million reps this spring couldn't be more excited to go win a Big Ten championship. That's why we asked them to come here and that's why they said they wanted to come here. I don't think you're any kind of competitor if you want it on anyone's shoulders but your own."
* Brandon Vitabile, a two-year starter, is back at center. Jack Konopka, a starter last season at right tackle, is back as well, but sitting out spring practice. They are knowns. The rest of the O line is not known and so a trench roster:
At guard there are (in alphabetical order) redshirt freshman Adam DePietro, sophomore Matt Frazier, sophomore Geoff Mogus and redshirt freshman Ian Park; at tackle there are junior Paul Jorgensen, sophomore Shane Mertz and redshirt freshman Eric Olson. Then there is junior Hayden Baker, who this spring has not only backed up Vitabile at center. He has also played both right and left guard. "He's going to be a great utility guy for us," Cushing says of him. "He's like that utility infielder. You can't have too many of those guys."
* JORGENSEN, who is 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, is projected to start at tackle opposite Konopka. But he too is sitting out the spring. Frazier, who goes 6-foot-4, 290, played some last year and is certainly in the mix to start at one of the vacant guard spots. But he is another that is sitting out the spring. But none of that trio of idle 'Cats is without work. Konopka, for example, is in charge of the O-line's rotation at each practice. "He's making sure we have the right guys in the right spots at the right time," explains Cushing.
Jorgensen, in turn, is in charge of making sure every O lineman who is not playing knows what play is going to be run. "So they can take a mental rep when they're not in," says Cushing. Then there is Frazier, who is in charge of enthusiasm. "He's making sure that everybody's having fun and that nobody comes off hanging his head because they make a mistake," Cushing says here. "Failure's going to happen. That's how you learn."
And why do they have these jobs?
"So they can be more locked in."
* THE LOSS OFBrian Mulroe and Pat Ward and Neal Deiters is one reason there are questions about the offensive line, which last season coalesced so well that the 'Cats averaged 225.5 yards per-game on the ground. The callowness of that trio's projected replacements is another reason for the uncertainty surrounding it. Then there is this.
The work down in the trenches is more than a bunch of big ol` boys pushing around some other big ol' boys. It is, in fact, very much like a choreographed dance and, to be successful, each of the line's quintet must anticipate what the others are going to do and must work in harmony with those others. That is why the absences of Konopka and Joregensen and Frazier are relevant. They are not out there dancing with those who will be their partners in the fall. "If we were in training camp right now, that would be a problem," Pat Fitzgerald says when asked about this.
"But they're going to have all summer to work. They're going to have, really, post-spring ball to work, and that's exactly what they'll be doing. As soon as spring ball's over, that whole group will be together. They can go do individual stuff together. We'll have time to get together in the film room. We'll use Cush accordingly on-and-off the road so he can work with that group a couple times a week."
"I don't know if you can replace the reps on the field," says Cushing himself. "But I think the off-field chemistry is critical. If there's no off-field chemistry, it's very rare to see them play well together on the field. It's literally a base trust in that person (next to you) to do his job. That's what they're building now. They go into the film room together. They work together. When I can't work with them in the summer, they'll be doing all those same things building that on-field trust. But that off-field trust has to be first."
So will establishing off-field trust make it easier to get the choreography down come fall?
"Absolutely. Absolutely. If they don't trust that guy is going to get his last rep of bench press, or if they don't trust he's going to be in the film room with them, then why would they trust they're going to be able to work the down guy into a linebacker or pass off a twist? That's why I encourage it and, to the credit of the young men, they've taken ownership of that. The leaders in the group, and right now it's Brandon and Paul and those guys who've been around the longest, they say, 'Hey. You're coming to the film room with me. Let's go.' Then they go in there together and make sure they know what that guy's thinking and make sure that guy knows what they're thinking. If they're on the same page mentally, they're usually on the same page physically."
* HOG PRIDE. The is what the 'Cat offensive line played with through the 2011 season. Hog Pride. But last spring, as all the questions swirled about it, Cushing gathered his players together and pointed out that hogs get slaughtered and so their motto would change. Now, they decided, they would be the Big Cats. "We're going to stick with that," he will say when asked about their current rallying cry. "This group right here, they're all the same guys. Obviously, the seniors left. But all those young guys working together right now, they embraced it. They came in and those older guys kind of put their arms around them and said, `This is what we are.' And they said, `Let's keep doing it. Let's roll with it.'"
"We're the Big Cats still," Brandon Vitabile, one of those older guys, will finally say. "We're getting out there, we're running around, having fun, attacking, not being defensive. We're just getting out there being king of the jungle."
Northwestern Hosts 2013 Pro Day
After the 2013 Wildcats wrapped up their fourth practice of spring ball, they surrendered the turf to a group of their former teammates looking to pave their way to the next level of professional football. Northwestern held its annual Pro Timing Day event, welcoming 30 scouts from 27 NFL teams to Evanston to evaluate eight former Wildcats in a range of drills and performance tests.
Ward in particular likely caught the eyes of scouts -- if not for his performance, then certainly for his flashy choice of footwear, a pair of Under Armour shoes specifically designed for running the 40-yard dash: