Offensive linemen are rarely given the credit they rightfully deserve. Their habitual work isn’t glamorous, or easily encapsulated by some tidy statistical formula, and besides, offensive line play – such as it is – isn’t what most football fans typically look for when they sit back, talk casually amongst friends and watch a game. Offensive line is the most unheralded position on the field – any successful offensive play requires, almost unfailingly, sound and extended blocking up front. If you don’t have that, If you don’t have a strong O-Line, nothing else works. Nothing.
The essential building block lies in the center, where for the past two seasons Brandon Vitabile has quietly – my goal this season, among other things, is to make Vitabile’s stellar line play a very loud, important, just-in-case-you-didn’t-know concept – become one of the Wildcats’ most indispensable players.
If you didn’t notice, the folks comprising the Rimington Trophy committee did. On Tuesday Vitabile was named to the preseason Rimington Award watch list, an honor given annually to the nation’s best center. Vitabile is one of four Big Ten centers (and one of 44 total FBS candidates) to make the cut – Nebraska’s Cole Pensick, Michigan State’s Travis Jackson and Ohio State’s Corey Linsley were also included. With 26 career starts under his belt, Vitabile moves into his third season as the Wildcats’ starting center and, after losing three other starters this offseason, the veteran purveyor of Northwestern’s O-Line rebuild.
Three new faces will enter the fold this season, Jack Konopka will return at tackle and Vitabile, same as ever, will anchor the middle of the line for the third consecutive season. Anyway, these kinds of early offseason recognitions are trivial recognitions of on-field performance – Vitabile is, of course, one of just 44 players named across the country. But it’s always comforting to see a player whose unspeakably important every-down work goes largely unnoticed by a large segment of fans and media receive some acknowledgment of quality and distinction.
We tend take Vitabile’s yeoman’s attitude and consistency for granted, and maybe that’s because offensive linemen – particularly interior offensive linemen – are often acknowledged only in passing, because they don’t touch the ball, or visibly influence most scoring plays (unless this particular sequence somehow finds its way into coordinator Mick McCall's playbook this season). Vitabile’s ability to stay on the field, and his unfailing aptitude to manage every micro-wrinkle of his complex position while on it, is incredibly important to everything the Wildcats do on offense.
The big guys up front deserve some love, and Vitabile, however comparatively minor, received his Tuesday.