Brandon Vitabile learns to lead

Publisher Nick Medline profiles veteran center Brandon Vitabile, now the unquestioned leader of this offensive line.

Brandon Vitabile was pissed.

Never mind the 26 consecutive starts at center, Academic All-Big Ten honors and Rimington Award watch lists.

In one rep during Northwestern's third fall practice, Vitabile made a mistake. The redshirt junior, self-described as "a little too rigid," became visibly upset with himself.

Vitabile said that in this instance, left guard Geoff Mogus offered some encouragement and then they moved on. He's allowed to make mistakes. The reactions speak louder.

Now the emotional backbone of this offensive line, Vitabile has turned into the player NU hoped he would become.

"He's doing a great job taking care of himself so that he's not hypocritical in his words," Pat Fitzgerald said. "I think that's a great sign of a strong leader. He can lead himself first, and the other guys will respect him when he opens his mouth."

No one really called Vitabile "leader" before. That word was reserved for upperclassmen Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward last year, and for Ben Burkett and Al Netter in 2011.

But Vitabile committed to Northwestern in hopes of being more valuable than some "number on the field." It was the only reason that justified him playing football so far from his New Jersey home.

The Wildcats offensive line needs to replace three senior starters this year—a daunting task for this team with championship aspirations. When you ask anyone connected to the team, though, they will take solace in having an experienced center.

"Everyone looks to him," right tackle Paul Jorgensen said. "He's learned what it takes to be the leader of the O-line, and he's used that and added his own touch."

Thankfully for Vitabile, he's not alone in the adjustment, and he never has been.


It began when Bob Heffner walked through his high school doors. The superbacks coach spoke to Vitabile at length in the Bishop Ahr HS (N.J.) athletic director's office. The three-star prospect then went home to research NU, and liked what he saw.

The idea of playing in Evanston–about 800 miles from his hometown–was the major obstacle. Fitzgerald offered Vitabile in June of 2009 after the center put forth a solid effort at NU camp, and focused his recruitment on unique values. Now, they're relevant. Then, they were convincing.

"It was different," Vitabile said of the NU pitch. "Other people will ask: How are you playing? How are your weight room numbers? Is your body okay?

"Coach Fitz was concerned about my development as a young man. My family definitely appreciated that, being comfortable knowing that if I'm going halfway across the country, I'm going to have good people around me."

He wanted to make the right decision, and consulted part of his support system including his parents, brother and high school coach. They were all sold, leading to his commitment about six weeks after receiving an offer.

That July morning, Vitabile went to breakfast and made the decision. He remembers calling Pat Fitzgerald, who "screamed" despite being on the set of a commercial. Fitz's next gesture, though, was equally memorable: he recommended that Vitabile call the other coaches recruiting him to inform them of his decision.

"That's how we are," Vitabile said. "We're classy and handle things the right way."


Vitabile channels his regrets like only the best do, with a purpose. His derive from an unspectacular 2010, when he labored through the redshirt process.

"I had a rough freshman year mentally," he said. "My attitude wasn't in the right place."

He was stranded behind Burkett–one of NU's all time warriors–on the depth chart. When he arrived, the presumed four-year starter still had two seasons of eligibility remaining—making time on the sidelines inevitable.

After his redshirt campaign, Vitabile benefited from one stroke of luck and never looked back. When Burkett was sidelined with an injury during spring drills, he took first-team reps and thought he might see the field in 2011.

Fall camp arrived. In a minor surprise, Vitabile entered as the starting center with Burkett moving to right guard. It gave him that missing confidence.

"I came into camp guns blazing," he said. "I was really physical out of the gate … I felt free to go out there and play because they had trust in me."

Vitabile eventually won the role. As the young guy on an experienced offensive line, he fought to earn respect. He consulted Burkett for advice on technique. And whenever Vitabile erred, the veteran addressed the problem and forgave him. They maintain a good relationship to this date.

Netter provided another important lesson. He kept it light, an important reminder for Vitabile—who naturally followed the textbook. He also felt more comfortable following people in spite of his ability.

"When he first got here, he's such a respectful guy so he let the older guys lead," Fitzgerald said. "Even though he was starting and playing, he didn't assert his will."

That was the case last season with Ward and Mulroe on the sidelines. And it can't be now.

Offensive line coach Adam Cushing frequently hands him newspaper articles about leadership and personality styles. Vitabile called it part of the "transition," and the early returns are excellent.

"He stepped up in the offseason," Jorgensen said. "He's always there backing us up and pushing us to go harder. He realized he's the most veteran guy."


A first year Leadership Council member, Vitabile worked in the offseason to mentor younger players.

In early fall drills, the group has shown excellent chemistry. They help each other rebound from mistakes.

Vitabile has learned a couple of things along the way.

First, he can't set the bar too high for young guys: "You can't expect everyone to do everything the way you want it done."

Second, he worked on his confrontation skills. The offensive line, whom Jorgensen described as "all best friends," eats and fraternizes during the offseason. When they get on the field, the respect is already there.

When they break down, how is the problem addressed?

"It's as free as you want it to be," Vitabile said. "It's football, so you can imagine the amount of yelling and testosterone. It's like bulls going at it."

He pauses but briefly.

"You get it out and move on. You put it in the past."

Vitabile bounced back from his freshman year struggles. He earned the starter's role not as a given, but because he proved his worth. The center now faces his most difficult task yet, and he knows it.

Fitzgerald sets lofty expectations for this O-line—one that sprung Venric Mark to his 1,366-yard season last year. He just says to the media: "Keep asking questions." In his mind, these questions are futile and the group will be fine.

Two years removed from being the unit's child, Vitabile carries the otherwise inexperienced offensive line towards the season opener at Cal. It was the examples, the articles and that "touch."

"It's still football," he said. "We get really serious about it but we love the game. We still want to have fun with it and make sure people don't get too carried away with beating themselves up."

Brandon Vitabile will continue to beat himself up. Each time that happens, his teammates will realize how the guy made it here: he leads by example.

"He doesn't feel like he's a finished product," Fitzgerald said. "And that's the best thing about him."

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