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Youth serves Wildcats
Inexperienced O-line stingy when it comes to allowing sacks
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist

The offensive line - including right guard Doug Bartels, from left, right tackle Desmond Taylor and center Ben Burkett - has been a key ingredient in Northwestern's success this season.

 

courtesy of Northwestern, Stephen J. Carrera

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Published: 10/25/2008 12:00 AM

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Northwestern junior offensive right tackle Desmond Taylor didn't hesitate.

While providing quick biographical sketches of his linemates - the guys who rank fourth nationally in fewest sacks allowed - Taylor wasted no time describing redshirt freshman right guard Doug Bartels.

"I'd say Doug is the nerd of the group," Taylor said with a merry chuckle.

Doug, would you care to defend yourself?

"I guess you could say that's true," Bartels said. "I haven't given any reason to refute that."

Bartels, who'll make his fourth career start today for the 22nd-ranked Wildcats at Indiana, is the newest member of the Big Ten's youngest and most inexperienced line.

From left to right, here's how little Northwestern's line had played entering this season:

• Redshirt freshman left tackle Al Netter: No snaps.

• Senior left guard Keegan Kennedy: No snaps, unless you count his 19 career tackles in a previous life as a backup defensive tackle.

• Redshirt freshman center Ben Burkett: No snaps.

• Bartels: No snaps.

• Taylor: Two career starts.

There's no line in the Big Ten - and likely the country - that can claim to be so callow.

Wisconsin's offensive line, for example, came into this season with 104 combined starts.

But feel-good stories like that of Bartels help to explain why the Wildcats lead the league in fewest sacks allowed (5), why they rank third in the league in total yards (389.3 ypg), and why they're one win away from clinching the school's first bowl since 2005.

Bartels, unlike the others on the line, pays the $46,000-plus it takes to attend Northwestern.

Though the 2007 Rockford Boylan graduate hopes he might merit a scholarship going forward, he pays the freight willingly because, well, he's the nerd of the group.

His father, Dr. David Bartels, is the vice dean of pharmacy for the University of Illinois-Chicago's Belvidere office. He specializes in endocrinology research.

His father's influence has inspired Bartels, who thought about going Ivy League, to follow a similar path. He's pre-med with plans to become an orthopedic surgeon.

While many of his teammates take their time heading to class after morning practice, Bartels usually has 10 minutes to sprint off the field, shower, dress and catch the shuttle back to campus for his 11 a.m. class.

Bartels needed to play a similar brand of catch-up to become a starting guard.

When right tackle Kurt Mattes, one of two returning starters on the line, tweaked his knee, line coach Bret Ingalls decided to shift Taylor from guard to tackle.

That meant he needed to find a new guard. He called his backup center.

"He asked, 'Doug, have you ever played guard?'" Bartels recalled. "I said, 'No, I've only played center for 11 years.'

"He said, 'Well, get ready.'"

That goes straight to Ingalls' philosophy coming into the season. He didn't care who started in years past or who owned scholarships.

"I wanted the most athletic guys," Ingalls said.

Maybe it's coincidence, but all of Northwestern's starters weigh less than 300 pounds. That's a rarity these days.

"The way our coach has our line set up," Taylor said, "he wants smaller, more agile linemen who can run to go with the spread (offense)."

And since Kennedy's the only senior, it sounds like most of NU's line could be set for years to come.

Uh, not necessarily.

Ingalls has a quintet of redshirting freshmen from the Chicago area, not to mention five other returning backups, eager to fight for time.

"In spring, I'm in a lucky position," Ingalls said. "It'll be, 'All right, let's go compete.' We haven't had that luxury. It's a good thing."

lwillhite@dailyherald.com