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2023 Northern Illinois Huskies Positional Previews: Offensive line

The Huskies bring back a very experienced, very talented offensive line in 2023.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 NIU at Kentucky Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies might have struggled in most phases on offense last year, but there was one unit that held their own: the offensive line.

Last season, NIU’s offensive front allowed just twelve sacks all season long, which was tenth best in the entire NCAA. They also gave up just 54 tackles for loss and allowed Huskie running backs to average just under 4.8 yards per carry, en route to 190.4 rushing yards per game (second best in the MAC, 34th best in the NCAA).

They were also a very disciplined unit, as the Huskies were flagged for offensive holding just sixteen times all season. (Tight end Tristen Tewes was called for holding a team-high four times.) It’s a huge advantage for any offense when your line doesn’t have you moving in the wrong direction with sacks and flags.

NIU loses just one starter from that very stout starting five in Marques Cox, who transferred to the Kentucky Wildcats over the off-season.

However, the Huskies have had such depth over the past few seasons up front that they will be replacing him with a very experienced and capable players. The offensive line is NIU’s deepest position group, with 21 linemen listed on their roster. Of those twenty players, nine are freshmen (six true freshman and three redshirt), four are redshirt sophomores, seven are juniors (with five redshirts), and there is one senior.

The leader of the pack is their lone senior Nolan Potter, a right tackle. Since his redshirt freshman year in 2019, Potter has played in 43 of the 44 possible games for NIU, starting in 30 of those contests. Last season, he was a first team all-MAC selection by both the coaches and Phil Steele. And to start this year, he’s garnering just as much attention. Both Phil Steele and Athlon have him on their preseason first team All-MAC lists, while PFF (Pro Football Focus) has him on their second team. Even the Outland Trophy has taken notice, adding him to this season’s watch list for best lineman.

Next to Potter, at right guard, is redshirt junior Logan Zschernitz. Like Potter, Zschernitz has been on the field a lot for the Huskies since 2019. He played in four games in 2019 before redshirting, then started every game in 2020 and 2021 and the first ten games of 2022, tailing 30 straight starts the Huskies before missing the final two games of last season with an injury. He was voted as a third-team all-MAC selection by the coaches last year, and made the second team on Steele’s list. Like Potter, Zchernitz is also getting a lot of preseason attention. Zchernitz made Phil Steele’s first team, Athlon’s second team, and PFF’s third team all-MAC lists.

In the middle is redshirt sophomore Pete Nygra. Nygra, as a freshman last year, started in 11 of the 12 games and did not allow a sack in 328 passing attempts— all while snapping the ball to four different quarterbacks. He also allowed just one QB hit all season long and was named Freshman of the Year by the team at the postseason banquet. To start this season, he has made Phil Steele and Athlon’s preseason lists, garnering a second-team and third-team All-MAC placement, respectively.

On the left side, John Champe will return at left guard. Champe, a junior, played in all twelve games (starting the last eleven games) in 2022, all 14 games in 2021, and all six games of 2020. He was a PFF All-MAC second team selection at the end of last year and, this season, he is on their preseason first team. He also made Athlon’s preseason third team All-MAC squad.

At left tackle, it will most likely be Evan Buss. Buss, a junior, has seen action in the last 31 of the last 32 games for NIU. He appeared in every game in 2020, the final 13 of 2021 (starting one), and all twelve last season (starting the final eight games at left tackle). Last season he earned Academic all-MAC honors and was named a second team all-MAC player by College Football Network.

Behind those five starters, is veteran player J.J. Lippe. The Swiss army knife of the offensive line, Lippe played in nine games and started seven in 2022, playing both right and left guard, right tackle, and center over the course of the season. In 2021, he played in every game and started 13 times at left guard and once as a tight end. Look for him to be a very active part of this year’s line as well.

Someone that might not get enough love is the long snapper. And for the Huskies, that player is Isaac Hatfield. The redshirt sophomore appeared in all twelve games last year, snapping 47 punts, 23 field goal and 31 PAT attempts. His efforts have even landed him on Phil Steele’s third team list to start 2023.

The Huskies also have five newcomers this season that each could make an impact - Landon Hron, Michael Jimmar, Thomas Paasch, Luke Skartvedt, and Jacob Welch. All but Skartvedt were three-star prospects per @47Sports, with Skartvedt deemed a two-star prospect.

Jimmar and Paasch are two of the highest rated recruits in NIU’s 2023 class. The two three-star prospects both held offers from Kansas and Toledo, while Jimmar also had an offer from Syracuse.

Expect the depth and talent on this line to just grow from here.

This is the third in a series of NIU football previews, with our next piece addressing the front seven (defensive line and linebackers.) Please look forward to that! If you missed Part 1, you can read that here. Part 2 can be read here.

Northern Illinois starts their season on Saturday, September 2nd at 12 p.m. Eastern time when they kick off against an ACC foe, the Boston College Eagles, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.