Its members are never as comely as those Rockettes who annually dance their way through the Christmas Spectacular at New York's Radio City Music Hall. But have no doubt about this when considering an offensive line. To be successful, its members must be every bit as attuned, every bit as cohesive, every bit as synchronized as those high steppers from the East.
That was a reason for the 'Cats to be optimistic as they began their final preparations for the 2011 season. They were returning four of the five starters from last fall's O line and so a familiarity was ingrained at this most important of positions. That, in turn, was also a reason to be surprised upon learning that the line had been reconstituted. For in now at center is the redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile and next to him at right guard is senior Ben Burkett, who has started at center in each of his team's last 39 games.
This is a not-insignificant change for the 'Cats, who were scheduled to leave Evanston on Saturday night and head up to Camp Kenosha, nor is it a change that was made on the run. "There was maybe a little bit of hesitancy originally as we started the discussion (to do it)," remembers O-line coach Adam Cushing, and the trigger wasn't pulled on the move until it was deeply discussed among the staff and with the players who would be directly impacted.
"The guys on the field have tremendous respect for the way Brandon is playing," Cushing then says. "Al (Netter, the left tackle), Ben and those older guys, (left guard) Brian Mulroe, all those guys said, 'We'll play with the best guy.' And they're happy to do it."
Right guard was the position the 'Cats were looking to fill as practice opened last spring, when Burkett was nicked up and often a mere spectator. That gave Vitabile his opportunity and, he now recalls, "I understood there was some shakiness at right guard and then, in the off-season, coach said maybe we could see you at center and move Ben to guard. So I just kept working and got a chance in spring ball with Ben out a little bit."
"It was looking to get the best five guys on the field at the same time and, coming out of spring, there was a competition among a big group of guys and Brandon won that out," says Cushing. "We're going to play the best five guys and if that means slight position jockeying, we're going to find the five best football players."
And how did he win out?
"He was consistent with his effort, first and foremost," Cushing says. "His attitude, he always tried to finish, he always tried to do what I asked from him first. Then he's very bright in the classroom in terms of understanding schemes. That's very important at center. And he's got great athletic ability. He kind of had the whole combination."
"He's got really strong hands," adds head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "You covered boxing. You know there are some boxers who have really heavy hands and, when they struck you, there was more force. It's not that they used their hips any differently. They just had real heavy hands and that's a great quality for an O lineman. He's got heavy, strong hands not only when he punches you. But he also has strong hands when he engages you."
As for how he uses those hands? "It's just landing a punch and making it powerful, accurate," Vitabile says in the phlegmatic tone used by many a knockout artist.
IN ADDITION, QUICKLY
Vitabile played center his last three years of high school and still weighs 300 pounds, which he was when he joined the 'Cats. But he claims his hips are quicker and that he is far stronger. . . His biggest challenge, he says, is "Earning the trust of the older guys. Al, he's got a solid relationship with Brian (Mulroe). He played there the whole year with him. Ben's used to being next to Mulroe and Pat (Ward) has been there two years. So I've got to make the right calls to earn their trust."
Burkett played guard during his redshirt freshman year before moving to center the following spring, so has some sense of the position. Also, notes Cushing, "When you play center, you know what the guard's doing all the time. So he had a pretty good idea of how to transition over. Certainly there are some things he has to learn here and there. But he's really played well, done some really good fundamental things over at guard. It's fun to watch.". . . Here's Fitzgerald on the O line: "That group is really coming together. It reminds me of the group I played with. How close they are, their cohesiveness. Great camaraderie. Great chemistry. Great attitude. They just need to keep working."
NOT SO SETTLED
With Vitable established at center ("He's got to play his way out of the lineup," says Fitzgerald), the most fluid position on the 'Cats is linebacker. "I think the next two weeks are really going to decide who ends up taking over those jobs," he says of this group.
Senior Bryce McNaul is currently listed as the starter at one of the outside spots, but pushing him is sophomore Tim Riley. Junior David Nwabuisi is starting in the middle, but pushing him sophomore Damien Proby. As for the other outside spot? It is as fluid as a fad with senior Ben Johnson and redshirt freshmen Colin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo all getting reps with the first unit.
"They should be getting about equal reps and then we analyze as we go along," says defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "Who's the most productive? Who's making the fewest mistakes."
** Following its Saturday morning full-pads practice, Northwestern was scheduled to spend the afternoon in team meetings and holding one lighter on-filed session. After dinner, the team departs for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside where it will spend nine days training in Kenosha.
** There was no extreme heat for the 'Cats week of practices on campus and, said Fitzgerald, that disappointed him "A little bit. But you know what? We were actually able to push the tempo a little bit more because we didn't have to take so many breaks. So the heat is great (for conditioning), but potentially you can have diminishing returns."
** Saturday's morning practice included one fracas, to use Fitzgerald's term, between receiver Venric Mark and safety Jimmy Hall and another between corner Ricky Weina and receiver Torin Dupper. What's that tell their coach? "I think we've got a chip on our shoulder. I think we've got a team that's very hungry. I think we've got guys that are competing. If they think a guy holds 'em, they're not going to take it. If they think a guy gave 'em a cheap shot on defense, they're not going to take it."
** When sophomore Kain Colter was running the offense, the defensive players on the sideline occasionally taunted him with the chant, "Kain's not Abel." Not bad, that.
Fitzgerald, on what he learned after two practices in pads: "We're in pretty good shape. We pushed the tempo pretty hard on them and I think, as a team, we responded really well. There were a couple individuals who'll remain nameless that need to look themselves in the mirror before the second practice (Saturday). I'll make sure it's crystal clear to them as we move forward. This is a championship train and we're leaving the station and you're either on the train or you're not. That's kind of our mindset right now."