Football: Quarterbacks, offensive line take center stage midway through spring practices

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

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There’s no starting quarterback yet, but spring practice is going well for Northwestern.

The Wildcats have essentially reached the halfway point after Tuesday, completing the seventh practice out of 15 allowed by the NCAA. There’s one more session Thursday before the team recesses for final exams and spring break, and coach Pat Fitzgerald seems pleased with the progress.

“The guys that are going, they’re competing their butts off,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought they came today better than they were last Tuesday, and that’s encouraging.”

All eyes are glued to the three-way quarterback competition between junior Zack Oliver, redshirt freshman Matt Alviti and true freshman Clayton Thorson, despite Fitzgerald repeatedly saying he’s far off from naming a starter.

In his view, each signal caller still has a long way to go before making a distinguishing impression.

“(We have) three guys that want the job,” Fitzgerald said of the group, “three guys that are making some really good plays, and three guys who are making bonehead mistakes that’ll get us beat.”

Quietly unfolding in the background is the battle to protect NU’s next quarterback, whoever that ends up being. The Cats’ offensive line had a rocky season last year and faces an uncertain future after the graduation of center Brandon Vitabile.

Fitzgerald said sophomore Ian Park and redshirt freshman Brad North are in contention to replace the 2014 All-Big Ten honorable mention, but that competition has been complicated by Park missing some practice days due to injury.

Offensive line coach Adam Cushing said North is currently practicing with the first team, but only because Park hasn’t been able to get on the field.

Elsewhere on the line other newcomers are also looking to make a big impression, but few can match the potential impact of junior Shane Mertz. A mammoth 6-foot-8, 310-pound converted tackle in the mix for one of the starting guard jobs, Mertz has struggled with injuries in the past but has been healthy for every spring practice thus far.

“Right now he’s running with the ones at right guard,” Cushing said. “We’re really pleased with his progress. It’s a slightly different position, but playing o-line is playing o-line and I think he’s adapted well.”

Mertz should spice up the competition for a position group that also features converted defensive lineman sophomore Connor Mahoney, but his emergence offers little in the way of certainty.

In fact, the only thing fans should be convinced of is that Fitzgerald will be holding off most major decisions until training camp in August.

“(Sophomore) Matt Harris is going to start at corner, so is (junior) Nick VanHoose,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’s spring ball. It’s so fluid. It could change in a drill.”

Twitter: @BobbyPillote