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Northwestern football's most important players — No. 5: Brandon Vitabile

Over the next couple weeks, InsideNU will reveal its rankings of the most important players on Northwestern’s football team. Past production, position and potential, among other criteria, were taken into account. We only ask one thing from you: If there’s one player you believe is pegged too high or low, reserve your venom until after reading the explanation. At No. 5, comes the anchor of Northwestern's offense.

Playing offensive line tends to be a thankless job.

When a running back breaks a big carry, he gets the credit for his vision or quickness. When he gets stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, the offensive line receives the blame.

Similarly, there are few layman statistics to measure offensive line production; sacks and rushing yards are pretty much the extent and even those stats don't measure an individual lineman's production.

On the surface, then, it seems odd for center Brandon Vitabile, an economics major who was featured in Sports Illustrated last August in an article titled "Revenge of the Nerds," to play an almost unquantifiable position.

But beneath the troves of data and graphs associated with economics, the fundamental concept is efficiency: increasing benefits, while keeping costs low.

And maximizing efficiency is exactly what Vitabile's done throughout his career. Heading into his senior season, Vitabile has started every single game at center for Northwestern over the last three seasons (38).

Even with Vitabile's presence, the offensive line still struggled in 2013. Vitabile, a team captain in 2013, had to help a young group gel quickly but growing pains persisted. With Kain Colter's availability in question from week-to-week, Trevor Siemian wasn't mobile enough to escape pressure and avoid sacks the way Colter did. That put a major spotlight on the offensive line, and it's one that will continue to shine heading into 2014.

While the unit was solid in run blocking, it was protecting a more conventional, drop-back passer that gave the group fits. After another off season to become a more cohesive group--and adapt to changing offensive scheme--it will largely be up to Vitabile to ensure his teammates execute.

As one of the top centers in the nation--CBSSports.com rates him as the fifth-best center prospect in his class--Northwestern will rely on Vitabile to be a steadying, experienced and efficient force on the offense line.

No. 10, Venric Mark

No. 9, Dan Vitale

No. 8, Christian Jones

No. 7, Nick VanHoose

No. 6, Chi Chi Ariguzo