University of Nevada Wolf Pack
Long Beach, California
Woodrow Wilson Classical High School
For an offense that has featured highly mobile quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo in recent years, the success those passers have accomplished have been behind a mobile zone blocking front wall. One of the "unsung heroes" protecting those All-American and All-Conference signal-callers has been Joel Michael Bitonio, a physical drive blocker who has quietly emerged as one of the elite prospects for National Football League teams to secure early in the 2014 draft.
Bitonio's lateral agility, power, trap blocking skills and versatility are coveted by today's pro offenses. Boasting 38 consecutive starting assignments for the Wolf Pack, the agile athlete has vast experience at a variety of positions on the front wall, earning his first 26 appearances with the first unit as a right tackle before shifting to the ever-demanding left tackle position as a senior. Still, with his explosion off the snap and ability to lead the running gamer into the second level, the Long Beach native is also being considered for another position change in the NFL — offensive guard.
Chemistry among a team's offensive linemen is critical for any offense's success. Since stepping into the starting lineup, Bitonio has stepped on to the playing field and lined up next to seven different guards during his 38 starts, yet, has never missed a beat. In two seasons protecting Cody Fajardo from the horde of blitzers and pass rushers trying to get to the quarterback, Bitonio has put up very impressive numbers that rival those of any offensive lineman in the collegiate ranks.
Thanks to Bitonio's stellar pass protection, the Pack's quarterbacks lead the Mountain West Conference and rank sixth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks for fewest interceptions thrown, as just five of their 415 pass attempts have been picked off in 2013. The only teams recording fewer interceptions this season are Louisville and Army — both with just three pick-offs, and South Carolina, Air Force and Navy, each with only four thefts.
Bitonio's ability to protect the blind side is further evidence of this emerging talent in a Nevada uniform. Since the start of his junior campaign, he has allowed just two quarterback sacks and one pressure, as the Pack have attempted 821 pass plays. Those figures are the lowest for any active offensive lineman in the FBS ranks. That ability to protect the pocket is also the major reason that the offensive tackle boasts a blocking consistency grade of 89.17% during his final season, the second-best mark for any blocker in college during the 2013 campaign.
As impressive as Bitonio's pass protection skills are, he is even more dominant as a drive blocker. He has been personally responsible for recording forty-one touchdown-resulting blocks for the ground game since the start of his junior season, During those 25 games, the Pack's ball carriers have reached the end zone 64 times. This season, those rushers scored 23 times, with Bitonio delivering 18 of those touchdown-resulting blocks as a senior.
Nevada rushed for 5,671 yards since the beginning of the 2012 schedule. Those ball carriers have followed Bitonio's lead for 3,654 of those yards (64.43%). He has produced 249 knockdowns/key blocks during that span, an average of 9.96 per game, as 23 of those blocks have come in the second level, an unheard figure for an offensive lineman, as that number is usually recorded by a fullback or tight end delivering crack blocks for the ball carriers.
With his complete "body of work," Bitonio is regarded as a certain future NFL player. Since tackle Buster McClure was named to the 1946 United Press International All-American team, only eight other Nevada offensive linemen have earned that prestigious honor. Based on his dominance in the trenches as a senior, Bitonio is in line to add to that list that has not had a "new member" since Bob Brown was selected to the 1986 Associated Press squad.
Prior to arriving at the University of Nevada, Bitonio was a three-sport standout at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School. The Long Beach native lettered three times on the gridiron for Bruins head coach Mario Morales. As a sophomore, he was a 6:01, 220-pound center and defensive tackle, but the team struggled to a 3-8 record in 2006. He finished with 17 tackles and a 3-yard sack that campaign.
Bitonio returned to the team as a strapping 6:04, 265-pound junior, earning All-Moore League and All-Southern Section Division Pac-5 honors in 2007. He helped the team improve from a 1-9 record that year to a 4-6 mark as a senior. He again garnered All-Moore League honors and was also named Moore League Lineman of the Year, along with picking up All-California Division-South One accolades after he produced 30 tackles through nine contests. Maxpreps.com also chose the lineman for their All-State second-team in 2008.
Bitonio was named to the Long Beach Telegram's Dream Team for both football and basketball as a senior. In hoops, he helped head coach Ted Hollister's team compile a 20-10 record, as the center/forward averaged 5.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Matt Mitchell took over the Bruins' basketball program for the 2008-09 schedule, as Bitonio was an All-Moore League and Long Beach Press Telegram Dream Team selection. He paced the league with 324 rebounds (11.2 rpg), as he also averaged 12.3 points per game, making a total of 93 field goals, including five from three point range. He also competed in track during the 2009 outdoor season, performing at the CIF Southern Section Division I Preliminaries in the 12-pound shot put (50'-04.5")
Bitonio was a late recruiting signee in 2009, but as they say, "the cream always rises to the top," as he was hailed as the best prospect from that class. He patiently bided his time for an opportunity to suit up, working hard in practices to earn Scout Team Player of the Year honors. He was a valuable "sixth man" for the offensive line as a redshirt freshman in 2010, playing mostly with the second unit at right offensive tackle, as the Pack ranked fourth in the nation in total offense (519.14 ypg). He also made a solo tackle vs. Boise State.
Bitonio replaced Jose Acuna at right tackle for the 2011 campaign, as the Basalite Big Blocker Award winner started all 13 games. Nevada's offense continued to rank with the nation's elite, finishing sixth in total yardage (506.69 ypg) and eighth in rushing (247.54 ypg). The front wall continued their hard work protecting the pocket, as the Pack led the Western Athletic Conference in fewest quarterback sacks allowed (17, an average of 1.31 per game).
While the media failed to recognize Bitonio's dominant performance during his junior season, professional scouts were quick to take notice, voting him an All-Mountain West Conference first-team selection, in addition to adding him to The NFL Draft Report's All-American honorable mention unit. Lining up for all 13 games at right tackle, he saw three lineup changes at right guard during the course of the year, but he quietly went about having one of the finest seasons for any offensive tackle in the nation.
Bitonio's blocking consistency grade of 88.92% for 2012 was the second-best for any right tackle in the FBS ranks. He registered 132 knockdowns/key blocks that included an eye-opening 23 touchdown-resulting blocks for a ground attack that placed seventh nationally while averaging 271.0 yards per game. He allowed just one sack and delivered five more touchdown-resulting blocks on 406 pass plays, with Nevada leading the league and ranking seventh in the nation in total offense (514.85 ypg).
Injuries throughout the first unit, especially on the offensive line, kept Nevada from making a bowl appearance for the first time since the 2004 season during Bitonio's final campaign in a Wolf Pack uniform. He shifted to left tackle in 2013, but the team had to utilize three different left guards, making four changes at that position during the course of the schedule.
Still, Bitonio's performance shined through — so much so, that he was one of the first invites to compete at the prestigious 2014 Senior Bowl. He becomes the first Nevada lineman to be invited to that game and in January, he has a chance to become only the sixth Wolf Pack athlete to compete in the contest, joining quarterback John Dutton (1998), linebacker Deshon Myles (1998), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (2011), linebacker James-Michael Johnson (2012) and safety Duke Williams (2013).
"I think it's an incredible honor," Nevada head coach Brian Polian said. "The Senior Bowl is the premiere all-star game for college players. It's so pivotal in the draft process that the NFL Network actually televises all the practices. I'm just so happy for Joel. We told the team, and their response and how happy they were for Joel was really pretty special and something fun to be a part of."
Despite changing positions, "introducing" himself to a new left offensive guard almost weekly and playing for a new coaching staff and offensive system, Bitonio was a model of consistency and one who totally dominated any defensive player that has challenged him in 2013. He led the Mountain West Conference with 117 knockdowns/key blocks, a total of 30 touchdown-resulting blocks (team has posted 40 touchdowns) and a blocking consistency grade of 89.17%.
Bitonio has appeared in 51 games at Nevada, starting his last 38 contests for the Wolf Pack — 26 at right tackle and his last 12 contests at left tackle… Since the start of his junior campaign (25 games), Bitonio has registered 249 knockdowns/key blocks, an average of 9.96 per game…Delivered 58 touchdown-resulting blocks during that span, including 41 for the ground game (team has rushed for 64 scores) and 17 more in pass protection…Produced 23 blocks in the second level…On 821 pass plays, he has yielded just one quarterback pressure and two sacks…During the course of his last 2,054 snaps, he has been penalized just five times… Has also provided the team with four tackles (three solos), delivering those stops after Nevada turnovers.