Aug. 11, 2013
Six days into 2013 training camp, Northwestern loaded up the buses and moving trucks Saturday to make its annual trip north to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Camp Kenosha. But before doing so, NUsports.com's Skip Myslenski had the chance to talk to some of the key players in the ongoing transition for the Wildcats offensive line, including third-year starter Brandon Vitabile, aspiring starter Paul Jorgensen and position coach Adam Cushing. What he found is that the key to success for a new O-Line comes not from X's and O's, but from the chemistry necessary to do battle in the trenches game-in and game-out.
The offensive line was a 'Cat strength last season. But inevitably, in the maelstrom of crashing bodies that is The Pit, a mistake would be made. Maybe a block was blown. Or maybe a twist was missed. Or maybe an audible went unheard. Whatever the error, it had to be addressed, addressed as soon as the group reached the sideline, and here is how that went down between center Brian Vitabile and guard Brian Mulroe. "We would literally yell at each other for 20 seconds. Just go off on each other and then it was over," says Vitabile.
"That was our relationship. We were so comfortable with each other that it was fine. Some people have different ways of solving problems. So you have to be comfortable enough that you can talk about something, communicate effectively and get it over with."
"There's got to be that trust," says offensive line coach Adam Cushing. "There's no sensitive guys in the offensive line. There's no hurt feelings. It's all about what's best for the team. When you want to try and win a Big Ten championship, when you want to try and win a Big Ten football game, there's some passion around. So they'll get it out, but they're still best friends off the field."
That pair had known each other for three years and, last fall, were in their second season playing together. But when that season ended with a Gator Bowl victory, Mulroe's time as a 'Cat was over. That was true too of tackle Patrick Ward and guard Neal Deiters, and so now Brandon Vitabile was suddenly the old man of his unit. He was their linchpin, their most-talented player, their most-experienced performer, and that mixture draped the mantle of leader over his broad shoulders. But, recalls Pat Fitzgerald, "When he first got here, he was such a respectful guy, he let the older guys lead. Even though he was starting and playing, he didn't -- I guess -- assert his will. Even last year, with Pat and Brian, he was still kind of behind the scenes. He still felt like an underclassman."
Vitabile's posture had to change now. Fitzgerald knew that and so did Cushing, who addressed the issue early last winter when he and his center had their postseason meeting. "My personality is maybe a little too rigid. I really get upset at myself sometimes," remembers Vitabile, thinking back to that meeting. "That's not the best way to handle a group sometimes. You can't expect everyone to do everything the way you want it done. That was an adjustment I had to make. I had to feel it out and be comfortable with the guys around me. He wanted me to make sure I built good relationships with all the younger guys (during the off-season). I'd played next to Brian and Pat and Neal, and they were older than me. I was around. But now I had to spend more time with the younger guys, get to know those guys so we're more comfortable (with each other) when things went wrong."
"The off-field chemistry is critical for the success of the offensive line, we believe more than any other position. Those five guys better be on the same page," explains Cushing. "We say it all the time. The 11 defensive players, there might be 10 of them out of position, but one guy makes a great play and it's a great play for the defense. But if four out of the five guys in the offensive line do their job and one doesn't, it's a bad play for the offense. So those guys have got to have a lot of trust off the field. And Brandon, with as many starts as he's had, and with as much experience as he has, he's got to be that guy who steps up and brings the group together."
The final composition of that group, which lost three starters from last year's team, is still a question. But there is no question about its leader. It is junior Brandon Vitabile, who stepped out of the shadows and embraced the mantle of leadership after his meeting with Cushing. He made sure his line hung out together during the off-season, made sure it watched TV together and studied film together and got in extra lifts together and dined out together a couple times each week. "He's the leader. He's the guy in the O-Line," says Paul Jorgensen, who has his eye on the starting right tackle spot.
"He stepped up in the offseason, he stepped up all the way through. Everybody looks to him when things get tough and he's always there, backing us up, pushing us to go harder ... We all have our own little tweaks and he knows how to handle it. If someone misses a block, say, he knows how to handle that person, either pull him aside or let him have it right in front of everybody. He knows how to handle things. He's a great leader for that reason."
"If I screw up, I'm going to beat myself up about it, get really upset about it," says Vitabile himself. "Like yesterday, I screwed up. And Jack (Konopka, the starting left tackle) was like, 'It's OK. It's all right.' I need that. It's not being afraid to offer support."
"He has tremendously high standards for his own performance, and that's a great thing. Especially for a coach, it's phenomenal. It makes it easy to coach him," Cushing picks up. "But at times it's going to make him over think it and not realize it was maybe better than he thought it was. He needs to focus sometimes on everybody else, and help everybody else along, and not always be critical of just himself."
"He's just gotten more vocal," Fitzgerald finally says. "He's always led by example. But now he's really been more vocal and doing a great job, number one, of taking care of himself. He's not hypocritical with his words. I think that's really a great sign of a really strong leader, a guy who can lead himself first. Then the other guys around him will respect him when he opens his mouth."
And so, we must finally wonder, are the parts of this offensive line tight enough that they can go after each other as Mulroe and Vitabile did last season? "We're getting there. We're definitely getting there," Brandon Vitabile says with a broad grin.
"We're getting there," echoes Paul Jorgensen.
"They're working on it. They're working on it," says Cushing. "But if you sat in the back of our meeting room, you'd see they're pretty tight now."
How would we see that?
"I'll say, while Paul Jorgensen has a rep, I'll say, 'Eric (Olson, a redshirt freshman), coach up Paul.' And Eric will coach him and Paul will be listening, and then visa-versa, and then Jack'll chime in from the other side of the room making a joke on one of them, and they'll all start picking up on Jack. Their back-and forth in the room is pretty good."
And they don't take it personal?
"Not at all," Adam Cushing finally says, and then he chuckles. "That's the best part about coaching the offensive line. They never take it personal."
Following a day off the practice field Sunday, Northwestern officially begins Camp Kenosha with a 4 p.m. practice Monday afternoon. Continue to visit NUsports.com and follow the 'Cats on Twitter (@NU_Sports) and Instagram (nu_sports) for news and behind-the-scenes insight on training camp.
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