Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

50° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Scrambling to find replacements

Two out of five ain’t bad.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes that proves true, since three of last year’s starting offensive linemen – left guard Adam Crum, center Trevor Rees, and left tackle Dylan Thiry – are graduating. That leaves junior Kurt Mattes and senior Joel Belding as the only returning starters from a unit that allowed 32 sacks last season, third worst in the Big Ten.

Throughout the spring season, the Cats have been using different players to try and fill those voids. Belding, who started all of last year at right guard, has already been moved to center, is the only lineman on the roster with starting experience at center. He also filled in at center for an injured Rees in three games back in 2005.

Offensive line coach Bret Ingalls has taken a look at every lineman on the roster and said the other three spots are still up for grabs.

“I think it’s wide open for every position, and that doesn’t mean some guys aren’t proving themselves and earning some trust, but that’s the beauty of what we’re doing this spring,” Ingalls said. “I think that there’s competition throughout the line. There are some starters, but I keep telling the other guys, ‘Don’t think this is done, ’cause it’s not.'”

Still, Mattes seems entrenched at right tackle, and Belding’s starting experience at center makes him an ideal candidate for the position.

That means the only realistically open positions are right and left guard and left tackle. The Cats have had a couple of Keegans, sophomore Keegan Grant and senior Keegan Kennedy, playing with the first team at right and left guard. Grant, a sophomore, has an easier road to the starting lineup, since Kennedy is switching from defense to offense this spring.

The other position battle is at left tackle between redshirt freshman Al Netter and junior Ramon Diaz. Although he maintained he is far from deciding the starter, Ingalls said he was impressed with Netter’s play so far.

“Netter’s doing great at left tackle,” Ingalls said. “I think he’s having an outstanding spring for a freshman, and I like the competition with Ramon.”

Many Big Ten teams would have qualms about playing a redshirt freshman at left tackle, the position charged with protecting the quarterback’s blind side. But Fitzgerald has no issue with doing just that if Netter proves himself.

“If Al’s going to win the job, and he goes out and produces, then he’ll be the starter,” said Fitzgerald, who has already ruled out the idea of moving the more experienced Mattes from right to left tackle to protect senior quarterback C.J. Bachér.

The players prefer not to worry about who will be starting in the fall.

“There’s competition all around,” Mattes said. “I try not to worry about that stuff. I’m just trying to get myself better.”

The line’s most important task this spring may be improving as a unit, especially in the zone blocking scheme NU runs. While the Cats’ spread offense is engineered to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, the offensive line still allowed almost three sacks per game in 2007.

Improving in pass protection is doubly important to Ingalls, who is also the team’s running game coordinator. The third-year coach said he would like to see more improvement in run blocking this spring.

“We want to run the football,” he said. “I think (we) can protect the quarterback, and I think we need to be able to run block some.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Scrambling to find replacements