On the dark green grass, he blended in with all the other offensive linemen wearing white uniforms. He stepped forward, locked his arms out and sat in his stance, creasing his knees before driving the defensive end out of the pitch play. It was simple, but he was still supposed to stand out from his teammates. He was the potential first-round pick, the team’s best linemen, the team’s left tackle.
For one play, Joel Bitonio didn’t look any different than the left guard by his right side.
It would take some time to warm up to his game videos. There were too many plays where he wasn’t establishing the line of scrimmage like a first-round lineman typically does. He puffed his chest out and widened his arms before punching defenders, reminiscent of USC’s Matt Kalil a couple years ago. Kalil went on to be a top five pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, but Bitonio won’t be getting drafted that early. He’s not as athletic Kalil was coming out, even though some combine numbers might suggest otherwise. He also didn’t always slide his feet when fighting speed rushers on the edge, finding it difficult to fend them off.
As the film played, the picture started to clear up: Bitonio was not only a better left tackle than at first glance, but he was an even better left guard prospect.
He was flexible enough to handle pass rushers. He was light on his feet, capable of climbing out to linebackers at the second level. He was also athletic enough to drop his hips and roll his 302-pound frame into a cut block on defensive linemen. That made him a great fit for the left guard position in a zone blocking scheme, where he’ll get help on the inside from sliding teammates who are stronger.
The best example of his athleticism against top competition came against champion Florida State Seminoles, who boast some of the best players in all of Division I but were cut down like trees by Bitonio.
On one particular play, a quick-game screen pass away from Bitonio’s side, he effortlessly cut blocked a Seminoles pass-rusher.
It was second-and-2 in the first quarter. Nearly 10 minutes into the game and a minute-and-half into the video, Bitonio lined up in a two-point stance. He was giving away that it was a passing play, but it didn’t matter if he cut blocked correctly.
He stood up at the snap, kick-sliding out and inviting the pass-rusher upfield. It was a trap, but the Seminoles rusher didn’t know it. He came upfield while Bitonio raised his fists like he was setting up a vicious punch to the inside shoulder. Then he bent his knees, leaned in with his right shoulder and hit the rusher right above the inside knee.
He dropped the rusher flat on his chest as the throw went in the other direction (1:15).
In today’s football, there are surprisingly a lot of offensive linemen who are unable to do what Bitonio did on that play. It’s difficult because they struggle with ankle stiffness or simply aren’t flexible enough to bend at their knees. They get by with bending at their waist, a move that is boom or bust depending on other technique and skills.
Two quarters later, he showed off another skill — peeling off linemen and sticking to linebackers.
The situation: second-and-7 with the ‘Noles leading 48-7 eight minutes into the game. Bitonio was at left tackle, but free of blocking the defensive end. It was zone blocking, leaving him in charge of double-teaming the under-tackle with the left guard. This could be something he’ll be doing at the next level while playing left guard.
When the play began, he fired forward with low pad level and drove the under-tackle down the line of scrimmage. As the running back behind him took the handoff, Bitonio peeled off the under-tackle and climbed to the second level, easily pinning a Seminoles linebacker in the middle of the field and away from the ball-carrier, who followed the block and jump-cut away to pick up extra yardage (8:00).
Come May, there’s an outside chance that Bitonio ends up a first-round pick. Maybe to a team like the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks or the Super Bowl-losing Denver Broncos. Either team would be a fit because they won’t ask him to play left tackle. Current starters Russell Okung (Seahawks) and Ryan Clady (Broncos) are two of the best at their positions.
Whether he ends up with the Seahawks, the Broncos, or a different team, Bitonio has the potential to be a solid NFL starter because he has the athleticism and flexibility to play the left guard position. He will, however, need to add more strength to be a top player at his position and stand out from the others on his team wearing the same colored jerseys.