- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Northwestern brings back many of the central characters from a 10-win team that capped its season with a breakthrough bowl championship.
The two quarterbacks? They're back. So is the All-America running back/return specialist. Almost every wide receiver and tight end from 2012 remains on the roster, as do multiple starters at linebacker, defensive back and defensive line. If you watched Northwestern in 2012, you won't have to study up on personnel for the coming season.
Only one position group was hit moderately hard by graduation: the offensive line. Three starters depart, including second-team All-Big Ten guard Brian Mulroe and left tackle Patrick Ward, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. One of the returning starters, tackle Jack Konopka, is out for spring practice because of injury. Two other possible starters, Paul Jorgensen and Matt Frazier, also are sidelined until the summer.
If there's a position to watch closely -- or fret about -- it's the O-line. Adam Cushing does both as Northwestern's offensive line coach, and his message this spring to a mostly young group is, "Cut it loose and don't be afraid to fail."
Cushing isn't filling out his depth chart tomorrow or the next day, especially with so many potential starters banged up.
"I'm evaluating who gets better, who shows that they can take what I'm asking them to do and improve on that," Cushing told ESPN.com. "There's going to be some guys coming back [from injury], but there are some open slots along line to fill. So who gets to be out there first come fall camp is really what we're talking about coming out of spring."
Redshirt freshmen Ian Park and Eric Olson have stood out early in spring and are taking reps with the "first-team" offense. Geoff Mogus, a reserve lineman and special teamer in 2012, also has emerged, according to Cushing, and Shane Mertz has picked up the system well despite redshirting in 2011 and missing all of last season with injury. Although Konopka is "definitely the guy to beat out" at the left tackle spot, several of the younger tackles could challenge for the starting right tackle position.
One position Cushing doesn't worry about is center, where Brandon Vitabile, the team's only healthy returning starter, anchors the line.
"He's absolutely the leader," Cushing said. "He's got to instill his attitude and the way he wants the group to play. I've seen him to a great job stepping up and taking guys under his wing. I'm really looking forward to what he's going to bring."
Northwestern's offense fundamentally shifted in 2012, going from a pass-first unit without a featured running back to run-heavy group with an All-Big Ten back in Venric Mark (1,371 yards, 12 touchdowns). The Wildcats finished 19th nationally in rushing, had seven performances of more than 200 rush yards and three games with more than 300 rush yards.
Although Mark and athletic quarterback Kain Colter received most of the accolades, the offensive line showed more grit than finesse, creating running room between the tackles. After struggling to covert red-zone chances into touchdowns for several years, Northwestern had 25 red-zone rushing touchdowns, tied for the third-highest total in the Big Ten.
"As the season went along, we gained confidence and gained that attitude that we can run the ball however we want to," Cushing said. "They know if we do our job, we don't have to do it forever. You go in there and say, 'We get No. 5 [Mark] and No. 2 [Colter] some space, we've got a chance to run the ball pretty well.'"
Like any new-look line, Northwestern needs to build chemistry, and Cushing is keeping the injured players involved by assigning them tasks in practice. Konopka is in charge of the personnel rotation, Jorgensen makes sure all the linemen know the play being run, while Frazier must keep the enthusiasm level high on the sideline. The responsibilities likely rotate next week.
All the injured players are expected back for camp, which will shape the depth chart.
"Our guys do a great job of working together over the summer," Cushing said, "so I'm not too worried about it because those injured guys are staying so involved."