The most experienced piece of Northwestern’s offensive line is also its most well known nationally. Brandon Vitabile has started 26 straight games for the Wildcats, forced veteran center Ben Burkett to change positions, pancaked plenty of defensive tackles, solidified NU’s line through its year-to-year progressions and now, for the second straight year, earned a spot on the Rimington preseason watch list. The award honors the nation’s best center, and a comprehensive list will open up on link-click-command. Vitabile joins Nebraska’s Cole Pensick, Ohio State’s Corey Lindsey and Michigan State’s Travis Jackson in the Big Ten’s group of honorees.
It is never easy to encapsulate what a reliable offensive line centerpiece can mean for a given team. Vitabile stepped into a starter’s role as a redshirt freshman and took off running. He has elicited few (if any) questions or doubts about his starting status, maintained a clean bill of health and positioned himself – even if unglamorously – as one of Northwestern’s most valuable overall players. He might well be its most reliable.
There are changes afoot for Northwestern’s offensive line in 2013. Guards Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters, and tackle Patrick Ward left in the offseason, replaced by three new starters. Vitabile, entering his third season, will need to bring them up to speed in time for a tricky season-opener at Cal.
The turnover should highlight Vitabile’s importance as an unquestioned third-year starter. His value might not be obvious to casual fans, because there are no counting statistics to quantify his weekly contributions – only collectively gratuitous hat tips like, oh I don’t know, sack prevention and rushing yards averages. This is the first (and maybe only) bit of award love Vitabile will receive this offseason, but it is not the first time he’s been distinguished amongst his conference counterparts. Phil Steele’s widely revered Preseason predictions listed Vitabile as the Big Ten's first-team center.
Winning the Rimington award would be a huge step-up from preseason magazine conference first-team placement, but Vitabile has clearly gained the respect of a lot of college football folks heading into his third season. As he should: the most valuable players of likely preseason top-25 teams -- Northwestern, Big Ten foes or anyone else, really -- are important names to recognize.