Northwestern needs O-line to grow up fast


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern offensive line coach Bret Ingalls looks at redshirt freshmen Al Netter and Ben Burkett and knows that they'll do big things down the road. Ingalls looks at true freshmen like Nick Adamle and Brian Mulroe and knows that the future of the Wildcats' line is in good hands.

The only problem is Northwestern can't wait around for those young offensive linemen to ripen. With a stockpile of senior skill players led by quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton, the Wildcats need their front five to produce right away.

It might be sound unfair to say Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line. Too bad. Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line.

"They're ahead of maybe what I thought, and yet we've still got to play a game," Ingalls said of his group. "We're making some progress, but until we play somebody different, it's hard to know."

The Wildcats lose three starters up front, including mainstays Trevor Rees and Dylan Thiry. Bacher will receive snaps in the shotgun from a redshirt freshman (Burkett) and have his blind side protected by another redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy who spent the last three seasons playing defense (Keegan Kennedy).

Throw in the fact that Northwestern has a new offensive coordinator (Mick McCall) and will often operate in the no-huddle, a strategy that produced stellar results in 2000 but with a veteran line leading the way. Is it a little daunting? No doubt. But Ingalls doesn't want his linemen over-thinking, which became a problem for a more seasoned unit at times last year.

"Regardless if we're beating our guy each time," he said, "we need to be able to come back, snap after snap and have some confidence, play fast and just let 'em go. If they let up because they don't have that confidence, they're probably in for a long day. So as long as they're playing hard, I'm going to feel good.

"The tempo is a lot faster, so they've got to be able to finish a play. Eye on the football, run to it, let's go."

Ingalls has some flexibility with the group but decided to leave returning starters Kurt Mattes and Joel Belding at right tackle and right guard, the positions they played last season. Netter nearly played last fall at tackle as a true freshman, and Kennedy won the starting spot at left guard after being low on the depth chart at defensive tackle.

"Just a hunger to want to play," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Kennedy, a senior. "He's earned that opportunity. He's just chomping at the bit, but he knows he has a lot to learn."

Lack of starting experience is an obvious concern, but depth might not be. Ingalls praised the preseason performances of junior tackles Desmond Taylor and Mike Boyle, and former walk-on Keegan Grant has pushed Belding for a starting position.

Though Ingalls likes what he has seen from the true freshmen, who headlined Northwestern's 2008 recruiting class, he hopes he doesn't need to play any of them.

"Certainly you want to five to glue together and go play," Ingalls said, "but right now, our depth might be better than it's been."