MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University football team entered the 2011 season with an offensive line that not only possessed a fair amount of size, but athleticism, as well.
Their major flaw, however, was in experience.
Not this year.
Northern Michigan University senior offensive tackle Jace Daniels of Escanaba takes part in offensive line drills inside the Superior Dome on Monday. Daniels is one of four returning starters from 2011 on the Wildcats’ offensive line. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Northern returns four starters from last year who appeared in all 11 games, with three starting every game.
The question now for head coach Chris Ostrowsky is whether the men in the trenches can be physical? Can they be consistent?
If the answer is "yes" to both questions, the Wildcats' offense should be able to climb out of the bottom half of the GLIAC, where it finished 10th in rushing and passing after a disappointing 2011 campaign.
"I expect them to be terribly consistent," Ostrowsky said. "I expect them to play with great physicality. When you have an offensive line that is physical and consistent, they are really good."
Senior left tackle Jace Daniels (6-foot-6, 306 pounds) out of Escanaba, junior center Pat Fehlberg (6-3, 299) of downstate Lake Orion and junior left guard Chad Anderson (6-4, 301) of Sault Ste. Marie, started in all 11 games last year while junior right tackle James Bester (6-7, 327) started in nine of 11 games.
Those four, along with departed senior right guard Nathan Linsmeier of Menominee, allowed departed senior scrambling quarterback Carter Kopach to be sacked 19 times - tied for fifth most in the league with Findlay - for a loss of 148 yards.
Sacks stalled drives more often than not last season, with the Wildcats ranking 10th in first downs and 12th in third down conversions.
"With us all being together for so long now, we kind of know what each other is doing and things can go along faster," Daniels said. "We have the whole playbook in. We already know what each other are thinking."
The top candidate right now to replace Linsmeier at right guard is redshirt freshman Peter Hagermoser (6-3, 305) of downstate Lancaster.
He's one of three young players pushing for playing time on the line along with redshirt freshman Kyle Steuck (6-2, 296) of Green Bay - the backup center - and sophomore Brad Kaatz (6-4, 312) of Pewaukee, Wis.
According to NMU offensive line coach Rob Boss, the key for these young players is developing the speed and technique necessary to succeed at the NCAA Division II level.
"In high school, they're a lot bigger than the guys they're playing against, so they're able to do a lot things purely off of size," Boss said. "You have to be technically sound to play at this level."
Daniels, who lettered three seasons with the Eskymos and was an All-Upper Peninsula selection in both basketball and football, is eyeing an All-GLIAC season.
He knows that will be possible if the line can open some holes for the rushing attack and improve on it's 4.1 yards per carry and 158.1 yards-per-game average.
"These running backs are good," Daniels said. "We are three deep and they're making the job a lot easier for us.
"We got the running backs that will make us look good."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is email@example.com