We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
Heading into the season, a number of people have singled out Northwestern's offensive line as a question mark considering the experience it lost last year. The line lost two steady presences in guard Brian Mulroe and tackle Pat Ward, and it could take some time to replicate the success that they had last year, but the talent is there to do it. This is one of NU's deepest offensive lines in recent memory, thanks to solid recruiting, and once things come together, it could very well be better than last year's group.
However, in order to get to that point, the line needs some veterans to step up, and in that department, it is running short. There will be two new full-time starters at guard, a new right tackle and even returning starter Jack Konopka will switch from right to left tackle. The one pillar of stability is center Brandon Vitabile, who will be responsible for maintaining consistency on the interior line as the young, but talented underclassmen get settled in.
Vitabile is already considered one of the best centers in the Big Ten and he could end up finishing as one of the best in the country this season. He's a sure-fire candidate for All-Big Ten honors and could very well end up on the first team. He's on the Rimington Award watch list, given to the nation's best center, and he's also on watch lists for the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy. Sure, those watch lists are pointless, but it shows that Vitabile has name recognition as one of the top interior linemen in the country.
So why is Vitabile important? Obviously center play is always important, but NU especially needs its veteran center this year. There will certainly be some growing pains on the offensive line in the beginning of the season — though it won't surprise me if this unit is better than last year's by the end of the season — and the Wildcats will need Vitabile's help to make sure there's some stability. If he plays like he did last year, NU will be just fine.