Most Valuable Cats — No. 4: Brandon Vitabile

We continue our Most Valuable Wildcats series with No. 4, Brandon Vitabile.

The line needs its veteran. Brandon Vitabile–entering his third season as starting center–may not be the fourth most talented player on Northwestern. But it certainly seems he's one of the most valuable.

The center position takes on some form of symbolic importance. And really, when asked about leadership, teammates mentioned Vitabile's name as frequently as anyone.

After his redshirt season in 2010, Vitabile "impressed coaches with his play during the spring," said NU Sports. That led to three-year started Ben Burkett moving to a guard spot, and Vitabile held up well as expected.

When Burkett and Al Netter graduated, Vitabile needed to help ease the transition of two new starters. Even with Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe, he functioned as one of the true "veterans." I expected that offensive line to regress, but it flourished throughout the season.

That unit–with the help of Neal Deiters and Jack Konopka–sprung Venric Mark to his 1,366-yard campaign. The offensive line gave up the fewest sacks in conference, and of course, much of this success can be attributed to Vitabile's steady play.

Vitabile even gained individual recognition. He was named the "offensive big playmaker" after the win against Minnesota, and then earned Offensive Player of the Game against Illinois. And, oh yeah, there's the Academic All-Big Ten honor to boot.

It was well deserved. To be frank, his botched snap in the red zone against Indiana caught me completely by surprise. He so rarely makes mistakes, which makes him a valuable center. He helped to bring his teammates along, and the results followed suit.

This year, he faces another challenge. The longest-tenured member of the offensive line, he needs to help the team recover after losing three starters. It may be NU's biggest question mark: Can they repeat–or come close to matching–the O-line success from last season?

The situation might be a lot less promising if not for Vitabile. The group looked solid during the majority of spring practices, and enough players should step up to make this a relatively strong transition.

Because on top of those individual merits, Vitabile's greatest strength is filling the leadership void. The coaching staff has every reason to trust his ability, and if that line can come close to last season's performance, you'll know who deserves a great deal of credit.

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