March 11, 2014
Spring Ball 2014 has a much different feel to it for members of Northwestern's offensive line, which last year struggled to properly prepare for the season due to injuries. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski chatted Tuesday with O-Line coach Adam Cushing and a few of the group's veteran leaders to get its pulse midway through spring practice.
, the 'Cats offensive line coach, is standing in the lobby of their football complex. "It starts in there. It starts in there," he says, pointing his thumb toward the weight room behind him. "The offensive line, you can't do anything without that room."
Paul Jorgensen was a starting tackle for the 'Cats last fall. But last spring he was recovering from hip surgery and so was absent from the weight room back then. Jack Konopka and Matt Frazier also started on the line last fall. But last spring they too were rehabbing and unable to get the background strength so necessary to their job. "More than anything, that's what it is," Cushing will say when asked the effects of being shut down in the offseason. "Big Ten offensive line is a man's game and it's a strong man's game. You've got to be in that room right over there to really have a chance to compete during the whole season. So, certainly, I think having all the guys we have healthy right now, and everybody going through winter, it's really made a big difference."
"Having a full year is going to benefit me a lot," echoes Jorgensen. "Maybe I wasn't where I needed to be last year strength-wise. This year I've had the full time, and obviously I have the rest of the spring and the summer to get back in there. Like Cush said, it's a big boy's game on the line in the Big Ten. That's where you do your work in the off season, in the weight room, and then you have to carry it over to the field."
Have his numbers gone up with a full offseason in that room?
"My gains have gone up," he says. "I've been able to get back in the squat rack a little bit after hip surgery. It's nice to build up a little more leg strength. And upper body, I'm the strongest I've been since I've been here. It's a very important part of the game."
LAST SPRING there were four, and sometimes five, offensive linemen shut down. This spring there are only two (redshirt freshman Brad North and sophomore Ian Park, a sometime-starter last fall). It is no wonder, then, that Jorgensen reports, "Across the board, I think this is our best off-season since I've been here for gains."
IT HAS ALSO BEEN an offseason of open competition on the 'Cats offensive line. "Starting January first," explains Cushing, "we said nobody has a spot. You're going to earn it from what you do in the offseason workouts in the weight room, in the lifting and conditioning, and the guys who have been consistently with the ones -- Paul being one of those guys -- were the most consistent. Everybody else, I was looking for competition with the next best guy. That's what I've been looking to build -- the best opportunity for competition between two and sometimes three guys playing the same position.
"We're bouncing a number of guys all around. Every single day we're trying to make it so the best five guys get the opportunity to be with the ones, and there might be a change every single day, and there has been. There's been a few days with carryover. But there's been a bunch of changes. You have to earn and deserve everything you get."
LAST FALL Jorgensen started at right tackle. But this spring, as a result of his efforts, he has replaced Konopka as the starting left tackle, the money-ball position on the line since it protects the quarterback's blind side. "He has been the most consistent guy," Cushing says when asked about the switch. "Starting January 1, whatever that date was we got back from winter break, he's been the most consistent guy in everything, across the board."
More consistent than esteemed center Brandon Vitabile, who's renowned for his work ethic?
Cushing laughs out loud. "I'm not going to put Brandon at tackle," he then says with a grin. "But those two guys have stood out. They're the fifth-year seniors and they're acting like it. It's nice. We need that leadership."
"We kind of took it over," Jorgensen says when asked about that last point. "Brandon had the leadership role last year solely. I was coming into my first year starting and I wasn't focused on the leadership stuff that I should have been. This year we made a conscious effort. We got together, we're like, `We need better leadership within the group. We need to bring the group together and grow as a group everyday.'
"So we made a conscious effort throughout the winter. After we finished last season, we said, `We've got to be better. We've got to be better.' It's a great opportunity for us, I think. We both complement each other very well, which is a good thing for us. We know each other very well and we know how to work off each other."
JORGENSEN AND VITABILE have long been and still are roommates. So there is no doubt that they can lead together. Jorgensen also played left tackle in high school and through his first two years as a 'Cat.
So, when asked about the recent switch back, it is no surprise that he says, "I feel pretty comfortable, honestly. It wasn't too bad of an adjustment because I've been there before. And it's just football."
And what about playing that money ball position? "We're just trying to find the five best guys, honestly, to play. Wherever they decide to put me, I'm going to try and do my best at that position," he says. "Obviously, the left tackle gets a lot of notoriety. I know it's an important position protecting the blind side of the quarterback. So I'm excited to be over there. But I was excited to play right too."
AND FINALLY, Cushing, on what he and his players concentrated on when they analyzed the line's play last season: "When we got together in January, we tried to cut last year off. We're done. This year it's about our ability to play physical and to out-physical teams that we show up against. We need to be able to walk onto the field and be the most physical."
NOTE: Safety Ibraheim Campbell broke his jaw in last Saturday's closed practice. "So," said Pat Fitzgerald, "he'll be out the rest of the spring, but he'll be fine for fall."
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