Offensive line leads the way for Tigers
Any time the word 'spread' is used to describe an offense, it conjures images of big plays, of backs with lots of running room and receivers catching the ball in stride.
Northwestern hopes to make some of those plays this season as it spreads out its Wing-T offense. However, with a new group of skill position players and an experienced line, it might not be the backs and receivers that carry the Tigers to success this season.
"We're the most experienced positions on the field so they're going to look towards us for success," said tackle Anthony Wargo, a senior and third-year starter who is listed at 6-foot-4, 324 pounds this year.
Northwestern brings back three of five starting linemen in Wargo, senior tackle Alec Eidelman (6-0, 250) and center Shelby Storm (6-3, 260). Seniors Davis Evans and Zachary Blake and junior Douglas Saks were in the running to step into the guard spots through a week of practice. Josh Suter will start at tight end.
While the line is back, the team graduated its top six ball carriers, top four receivers and its starting quarterback and tight end.
Junior running back Payton Bachman returns as the most experienced skill position player with 18 carries and three receptions last year, including one rushing and one receiving touchdown.
This new cast of characters has been preparing the entire offseason to run the spread Wing-T.
"We had the offense up here twice a week throwing the ball," said first-year head coach Tom Linette. "We had eight passing scrimmages this summer. We did everything we could to get us ready to pass the ball."
The Tigers had great success for years with the Wing-T, but the past few seasons they have been trying to make the offense less predictable. Under head coach Bob Mitchell, who retired last year after 29 seasons at the helm, the Tigers were mixing a spread offense with their tradition offense. The goal is to prohibit the defense from stacking the box against the run.
"We want to be able to run out of our throwing formations and throw out of our running formations," Linette said. "We're going to run the ball when we want to run the ball and throw the ball when we want to throw the ball. We don't want to have it dictated to us."
Linette, who was offensive coordinator for several years under Mitchell, will send his team out in three- and four-receivers formations more often this season. Those formations aren't just to pass. They could help loosen up the defense to run behind one of those big, strong and experienced linemen.
Wargo has the most experience up front. He played as a sophomore and got better and better as last season wore. This year he could be dominant.
"I think he's going to be one of the top lineman in the area," said Linette. "He is intelligent. He works with the other kids. He keeps everybody on the right page. He's unique in that we haven't had a tackle be the leader of our [offensive] line since Jake Figner."
While Wargo is being compared to Figner, a three-year starter at the University of West Virginia, he isn't thinking about his own college career until this season's over.
"I'm going to focus on this year," he said. "We'll see what happens after the season."
Even in the new offense, Northwestern plans to spread the ball around. Linette said he has several players capable of making big plays.
"These are unselfish kids," said Linetter. "We won't have anyone with 25 or 30 carries a game."
The Tigers went 7-3 last year, just missing out on a District 11 Class AAA playoff spot. They accepted an Eastern Conference invitation and beat Scranton Prep in the first round before falling to Bethlehem Catholic in the final.
The EC final was the last game for Mitchell, who had two sons and a daughter that not only attended Becahi, but were standout athletes for the Golden Hawks.
Although Mitchell leaves a great legacy and tradition behind, he also left a big part of his staff, which includes his son, Gregory as well as Linette and several assistant coaches.
So while there might be a few tweaks to the offense and some other changes here and there, this year isn't quite the start of a new era. It's just another chapter in the history that Mitchell and his staff began to write nearly 30 years ago.