Nevada offensive tackle Joel Bitonio has been a terrific player, was part of the Wolf Pack’s 13-1 season of 2010 and has gone up against a great schedule of defensive ends this year, but he seems to still be under the radar as draft prospects go. Joel and I discuss his his career with the Wolf Pack, the most difficult year of his life, what he can offer a team in the NFL Draft and what the Wolf Pack should be able to do in the future.
Peter Smith: How did you ultimately choose Nevada?
Joel Bitonio: I wasn’t very heavily recruited. I was actually committed to UC Davis for a while. And then about two weeks before signing day, I ended up having San Jose State and Nevada call me and I only had time for one more visit, so I went to Nevada and I liked what was there and I enjoyed my time on the trip. I just decided to come here to Nevada.
PS: Your first year of playing, your team goes 13-1, you win the bowl game. Was there an expectation that it would always be like that each season?
JB: It was definitely an exciting time. For Nevada, we had a pretty star studded team that year. We had (Colin Kaepernick) Kaep leading the way on offense and we had Virgil Green at tight end and Rishard Matthews. Brandon Wimberly’s coming out this year. Our OLine was really solid. Like, we had a lot of guys who play in the NFL now that were on that team.
And defensively, it was our best defensive team in history I think. We had Dontay Moch, James Michael-Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Isaiah Frey, Duke Williams. We had guys that are in the NFL getting drafted, you know, on that defensive line as well. So, we knew were talented and we thought we’d carry on, but when you lose a four year starter in Colin Kaepernick, you kind of understood there would be a little drop off.
And our schedule the next year was unbelievable. I mean, we had Oregon first game of the year, so it was gonna be tough. We thought we had a chance to do well again and compete for championships, you know, conference championships every year, but we didn’t know if we were gonna go 13-1 ever year.
PS: In your junior year, you played 8 games that were within one score. What was that experience like having had a number of games that didn’t just come down to one possession but the last play of the game?
JB: It was tough, because I think we lost more of them than we won. So, we should have honestly won about 10 games the junior year as well. We should have had a really good year, competed for a conference championship that year, but I remember we were up by two touchdowns against South Florida. They came down and just scored two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the game, beat us. You know, that was a heart breaker.
The bowl game, we seriously thought we won the game. We were up by 13 points with a minute forty left. They score a touchdown, kick an onside kick, and score a touchdown in a minute forty. It was surreal almost. We were like, how is this happening to us?
We thought were a pretty talented team. We thought we could compete for a conference championship like I said and just losing those games like that, it is pretty heartbreaking. When you win the games, it’s pretty emotional. You’re real excited, but when we lose games, there’s nothing like losing a close game like that. It was tough.
PS: How does Nevada grade its offensive linemen? There are some schools that take off for not being engaged in a block when the whistle blows. And watching the tape, it seemed like you always found a way to be engaged at the end of the play.
JB: No, we grade like that. This year was like a three-pronged grading system. Basically, it’s if you do your assignment, you get a partial point for that. Did you use the proper technique? And I think the third thing was you either got the job done or you didn’t get the job done. So we kinda graded like that and then we had a thing that was basically like a knockdown chart. So like a cut, a pin, just knocking your guy down any way you can, you get points for that. So, the winner each week gets their number put on an axe and the total winner at the end of the year gets the axe to keep.
So, I guess that could kind of be my motivation to stay on guys or whatnot, but as an OLine, we just wanted to make sure we were the nastiest group on the field. Teams did not want to play Nevada because they knew it was going to be beat up. That was our goal going into games.
PS: Who won the axe?
JB: I actually didn’t win the axe. Our center won the axe this year.
PS: Is that a sore subject for you?
JB: Yea, a little bit. I mean, some of his knockdowns were a little suspect in my book. It wasn’t our coaches that made the decisions, so we voted on it as an OLine group. And don’t get me wrong, he’s a heckuva player and if you watch him on film, he tries to finish blocks just as good. But let’s just say inside there’s a lot more feet getting tangled up than on the outside. There might have been a couple trips in there. You never know.
PS: I’ve heard you’ve gotten looked at for all 5 spots on the offensive line.
JB: Yea, so at the Senior Bowl, I practiced at left guard, right guard, left tackle, right tackle, and I took a few snaps at center. And then at the combine, you don’t really do position specific stuff, it’s just OLine, you know. And then for my Pro Day, some of the coaches wanted to see me snap, so I was like yea, I’ll give it a try. I haven’t really snapped in a while. So I played center and then they had me working at guard and they had me kick at tackle, so yea, all five positions, I’ve been going at.
PS: Obviously, you’d prefer to be a tackle, but is there something you enjoy at each spot?
JB: Since I’ve been at Nevada, I’ve been playing tackle my whole time here. I’ve been used to tackle. So, obviously, I feel like that’s my most comfortable position as of now, but as an OLineman, I feel being versatile is key and I think I could move inside to guard or even center and be just as productive there.
But I would say for tackle, it’s almost like corner on defense. You’re kinda on an island a lot of the time. And you’re either blocking your man or he’s getting a sack. You’re run blocking him or he’s making the play at the point of attack. It’s almost a lot of responsibility, but I kinda like that. It’s like, alright, give me the job, I’ll keep him out of there and we’ll be alright. Especially at left tackle; that’s what I did last year. It’s a lot of responsibility. I like that.
Probably on the inside, guard, it’s a lot grittier in there. At least, that’s what I felt like at the Senior Bowl. It happens a lot quicker. You’re close to your man and stuff like that. You’re not really setting off the ball. It’s just a gritty battle inside. You’re just scrapping to get any type of movement or any type of advantage you can.
Then I would probably say, center, I haven’t played center since my freshman year in high school. I think I like center because you kinda control the entire offensive line. You’re making calls. You’re deciding what combo blocks you’re gonna do or where you’re guys should make blocks, so you’re kinda in that role as a leader in there, so that’s probably what I would say for those positions in there.
PS: What do you attribute your mindset with run blocking?
JB: So my father passed away when I was a redshirt freshman, so going into that year we were 13-1, that fall camp, he actually died of a heart attack. And I mean, it was the most emotional, unbelievable roller coaster of my life. It was just unreal; you never think it’s going to happen to you. All the clichés, you know what I mean. You really feel that way.
So when I got back, I took a week off from fall camp for the funeral and stuff, I got angry, you know, I was like, man, why did this happen to me? I kinda started playing angry then and I don’t have to play angry anymore, but after doing it for a few weeks or a few months or a year, it just comes a lot more naturally now, so now, that’s all I know.
You play to the whistle. You try to finish your guy every play. Your goal on each play is to win, like you can’t let your man make a play. And if all eleven guys are doing that, it will be a successful play. I just think I attribute that to going through some hard stuff and kinda using it as motivation out there. But now, it comes a lot more naturally. I don’t have to think about finishing. It just kinda happens when I’m out on the field.
PS: So does that make signing day a lot bigger for you as a memory with your dad?
JB: Yea, yea. I mean, he was unbelievable. He was my mentor, great friend, just if I ever needed to talk to anybody, I would talk to my dad. And he was such a big Wolf Pack fan, you know, once I came here. He loved everything we were doing up here. And, you know, when draft day comes and I hear my name called, it’s going to be emotional anyway. It’s a dream come true, but knowing that he was a big part and he’s not really here to see it, it’s gonna be definitely a little bit emotional. But I know he’s proud where he’s at right now and that’s the goal, so hopefully I can make him happy.
PS: What was it like going through that 18-month process of going from lightly recruited to going to college to contributing to that huge season; all of the heartache combined with success in that time?
JB: So the first year, I was probably like every college freshman; just big eyed, like man, this is unbelievable how this machine works, you know, college football and stuff. I redshirted my first year. I knew I was going to redshirt most likely coming in. So I took advantage of that, you know, I was in the weight room all the time just trying to get bigger, trying to get faster, but I traveled with the team that year as well, because one of our OLinemen got suspended and they needed an extra body for warm-ups and stuff with the team. So, I was traveling with the team. I got to experience a lot of that and I’m like man, I don’t want to stand on the sidelines. I want to help this team win any way I can and stuff like that, so you’re going through that.
I thought going into fall camp, I thought, I mean I was fighting for a starting spot. And I thought, you know, I was ready and stuff and then my father passed away. So, football was set on the backburner obviously for a couple weeks, but me and my mom just talked and we were like, you know he’d want you to be playing right now and I was just like, I know, I know, I’m gonna go back and I went back and I started playing harder and stuff.
It also sets you back, you know, you miss a week and a half of fall camp. That’s a lot of time, so it took me a while to contribute the way I wanted to contribute and start from week one. But I contributed on punt, field goal, you know, the main backup; I played all four positions that year. And I was trying to go through it; it was very emotional, every game from the first game of the year. It was like man, he would have been here watching or when we won the championship, no one would have been prouder and a bigger fan than my father. It was exciting because we were playing now, but it was emotional the entire time; just a roller coaster of emotions that entire year. It was definitely the toughest year of my life, but once we succeeded and did well, I knew I could accomplish anything and it’s making me a better person today.
PS: You played football in high school but you also played basketball. I read you were on the Dream Team, but were you a double-double guy or a six hard fouls type of guy?
JB: I was a double-double guy. I mean, I fouled out of my fair share of games, but not because I was intentionally fouling guys. I think my senior year, I averaged like 15 points, 12 rebounds a game. I was a key player on our team. I was all-league in basketball. I made the Long Beach Dream Team. We were a solid team. We were pretty good. We played in a tough league in Southern California. It was Long Beach Poly and Compton. DeMar DeRozan was down there. I mean, we had some really good players. I played basketball my whole life. You know, I had some post moves inside. I could drop step on some people, up and under every once in a while.
PS: Is that where you get a lot of your footwork for football?
JB: I think so. I played roller hockey too. I don’t know if that’s really footwork, but that was my first sport, roller hockey, so from that point on, that and basketball, I just felt like just being a versatile athlete; that would help develop strong work habits and footwork, like you said and it just has developed over time and I’ve continued to improve it, but definitely basketball helped me in that aspect.