Joel Bitonio was walking off the practice field his freshman year at Nevada, a freshman tackle just trying to make an impression on a great Wolfpack team that season, when he got the word that no kid is prepared for: His father had died. Mike Bitonio, 45, had suffered a massive heart attack, and they were unable to keep him alive at the hospital. He was best known as an MMA fighter, but for Joel Bitonio his father inspired him with his toughness but also his love for him and his family.
Joel went on to enjoy a 13-1 season that year, led by Colin Kaepernick and a terrific team coached by Chris Ault, and Bitonio became one of the country's better offensive tackles over the next few seasons. Although the team has not been as successful since Kaepernick and Ault left, Bitonio has made quite the impression on NFL scouts and could be drafted as high as the second round in May.
Bitonio took some time recently to talk to Shutdown Corner about a number of topics, including his father's legacy, matching up with a few of the draft's top prospects, possibly moving to guard or center in the NFL, his unusual beard and reading books.
SDC: Was football always your best sport? I know you have played a lot of hoops too.
JB: I played basketball all four of high school. I actually did some track and field — shot put and discus — my senior year, too. But I loved basketball. I played it since I was a little kid. I also played a lot of roller hockey as well. But at 6-4, 300 pounds, I figured I was probably best as an offensive lineman rather than a power forward.
SDC: I’d say. Give me the scouting report of you as a hoopster.
JB: Sneaky athletic, I would say. Most of the times I would go into games and people would assume I was a five-fouls-and-out kind of big guy, but my senior year I was averaging like 15 points and 12 rebounds a game. I was all-league that year. We had a pretty solid team in a tough conference, and I was the rebounder and putback guy. Definitely a solid contributor.
SDC: Sounds like my game in high school, minus the scoring and the tough conference.
JB: [laughs] Maybe we should play a little.
SDC: I am closer to 40 than you are to 25. That won’t work. I heard Chris Ault scouted you at a basketball game first.
JB: Yeah, I got recruited really late in the process, so when Nevada started recruiting me hard, it was basketball season. He watched me play ball and liked what he saw, and I took my trip there the next weekend. That’s how I ended up coming to Nevada.
SDC: You mentioned you were a roller hockey player. I am from the east coast where they play hockey on ice. What is that like?
JB: So it’s hockey on cement. You play with rollerblades. You play in a cement rink. It’s a blast. I got pretty good at it. I started playing when I was 5 and played for a while. I was on a pretty good team at one point. I think being a versatile athlete helped me, too, as a football player.
SDC: When you got to Nevada, the program was just starting to hit its peak. And even though Colin Kaepernick wasn’t the star he is now, I imagine he was pretty big time on campus.
JB: When I first got there that summer [of 2010], I thought he was the man. He was the hardest worker. He was in the weight room constantly. He was just a freak athlete. At Nevada, we had a lot of good players, and we faced a lot of great players. But to move around the way he did, I said, ‘Man, this guy is a special athlete.’ I had never seen anything like that. He could run, jump, do anything, really.
SDC: What have Kaepernick and Coach Ault done for the Nevada program? It seems hard to put into words.
JB: Chris Ault pretty much is the University of Nevada. He’s done it for 30 years. He’s been in the athletic department, he’s been the head coach, and he brought the school from D-II to Division I-AA to Division I. He built a program and to do so with the money he had to work with, which was not a lot, is pretty incredible. He was not making $3 million or $5 million a year like these other coaches. What he has done with those resources, you can’t really explain how big it was.
As for Kaep, I mean, we’ve had some pretty high-profile guys come out, but him being the face of a franchise in the NFL now, it just gives the university so much more name recognition. Now people say, ‘Oh, Nevada, yeah … Colin Kaepernick. I know your school.’ It’s almost Colin Kaepernick University now. [laughs] It helps out for sure.
SDC: Tell me about your father. I know people talk about his MMA fighting a lot, but how was he as a dad?
JB: The first thing that comes to mind with him is hard work. That’s what he stressed to me his whole life. He wasn’t working in an office or anything like that. He was a carpet layer. He was a workingman. He also did MMA, and he taught me some MMA stuff.
But overall, he was my inspiration. He made sure I was trying to get my education and go to school. He didn’t want me to end up like him, having to work on his hands and knees. That made me want to go to school, get my education and make him proud.
He was always tough as nails. My whole life, I never saw him cry. He was an emotional guy. He told me loved me, and he hugged me, and things like that. But he was a tough-as-nails guy, and that’s the way he brought me up. I think that translated to me as a football player. I play hard, I play to the whistle.
I learned all that from my father. I got his work ethic. I used to watch him fight and think about the person it takes to be a fighter like that.
SDC: If you’re uncomfortable talking about any of this, please let me know. But that phone call you received in 2010 … most people can’t even imagine experiencing that.
JB: It was honestly the most … not that it’s hard to talk about, but it’s just hard to explain what I felt at that moment. Just the sheer emotions of it all.
It was a Sunday, I was walking in from practice, and I see my buddy, and my mom had his phone number. I see him walking toward me on the practice field, and I am thinking, ‘What is he doing here?’ He wasn’t a player. He said, ‘Hey, you need to call your mom.’ I didn’t know why I would have to call my mom so urgently. He told me what happened, that he passed away, and it was just shock.
I just thought about my dad … I had never seen him cry, never seen him even get emotional like that, you know he’s your Superman. He never gets hurt, and all of a sudden, he’s gone? [pause] It was unbelievable.
I had to go home, and I just talked it over with my mom and my brother and sister. This wasn’t supposed to happen to our family. You go through so much, and people are trying to make us feel better, and really nothing anyone could say could make it better. In college, I learned to cope with it better. But at his service, I just told myself: Make him proud with the way you live.
It was the season we went 13-1. That was the hard part. Every game, I thought, ‘Man, he would have loved to have been here for this one.’ He was cheering for those up there, you know?
SDC: Thanks for sharing that. Did it change your relationship with your mother?
JB: Definitely. My dad and I were really good buddies. And when he passed away, my mom and I became much closer. She started coming to many of my games, and she started becoming more involved and understanding the games more. She started asking me questions about it. Then pretty soon, she’s telling me, ‘You could have done this better.’ [laughs] She’s the strongest lady I know, what she’s been through. We tried to help each other out through the tough times just by talking more often.
But she gets pretty emotional at my games. She gets really into it and loves sports. She always thinks the refs have it out for me, and she’ll let them know about it.
SDC: What has been your biggest growth as a player from the time you arrived on campus? What have you come the farthest with?
JB: I would say technique. I still have a ways to go. Coming in as just an athletic kid that is flexible, I worked hard to be more of a technician, too. My hand placement has improved a lot. If your technique is sound, you can sustain yourself and then your athleticism kicks in. Every year I improved immensely in that department. As athletic as I was back then, obviously I have gotten stronger, but I would say that technique — overall — that’s the area I have made the biggest improvement in.
SDC: A lot of people talk about that matchup in the opener last season against Anthony Barr and UCLA as being a big measuring-stick game for you. Did you view it that way?
JB: Going into that game, I had all summer to watch him and prepare for him. I had seen all of his sacks from the year before at least 10 times, just to see how he played it and how I could do a better job. That game, I think, shows how far I have come. This guy is an All American, a great player. Being on the same stage as him shows that, hey, if this guy can play with anyone in the country then I can play with anyone in the country.
It definitely helped me out in the scouting world. I had teams telling me that, ‘Well, this guy is good and you kept up with him.’ Same with the Florida State game and the Fresno State game. I think those were the games where, if there was doubt, people could look at and see, hey, maybe this guy can contribute at the next level.
SDC: Even though you were a tackle your entire career at Nevada, you worked at tackle, guard and center at the Senior Bowl and at your pro day. How did that go overall for you?
JB: Yeah, I had played tackle my whole career at Nevada, so it was definitely new going into the Senior Bowl week and playing guard and stuff. I think the biggest thing is you’re not really setting up the line in pass pro[tection] as much, so you have to get used to that. You’re almost backpedaling. So it was like, ‘Man, this is a little different.’
I think that was the biggest jump. But to me, being an offensive lineman is being an offensive lineman. There are different technical aspects and sizes, but just being a good offensive lineman is the biggest thing. The first day at the Senior Bowl, it was a little weird, but as the week went on I felt a little more comfortable.
Going to the NFL, there is going to be a learning curve. I think that’s just going to be part of the learning curve, playing anywhere on the O-line, and I am looking forward to it. I think I am going to feel comfortable at whatever position they put me at.
SDC: Has your feedback from NFL teams led you to believe you’re probably going to be a guard or center on the next level?
JB: Yeah, I would say probably 60 percent of the teams I have talked to are saying guard or center for me. Some have said, ‘Oh, you could play tackle in a pinch.’ You can only have about seven or eight [lineman] active on game days, so they want someone who can be versatile and play multiple positions.
Forty percent of the teams are saying they would start me at tackle and see what happens. They said they only would move me inside if it didn’t work out at tackle. It has been mixed reviews in that aspect, but I would say I am being viewed as more of an inside guy right now.
SDC: Tell me about the tradition of the axe with the Nevada linemen.
JB: We’ve had an axe my whole career here, but it has been for different things. My first couple of years here, if was different, but the last couple years it has been given out for overall knockdowns — pancakes, knockdowns, cuts, getting your man on the ground. We all watch the film together and we vote on it, whether it’s a fair knockdown or not. Sometimes the votes are a little skewed. [laughs]
It’s something we are fighting for every week. If you get the most votes, you get to carry that axe. You get to carry it out for game day, and the winner of the most axes at the end of the year gets to keep it. So it’s giving you a little extra push at the end of a play.
SDC: Did I hear correctly … that you didn’t end up with it at the end of the year?
JB: I won it against UCLA and a few other games, but our center [Matt Galas] — and he’s a feisty player, and he plays with so much tenacity — he won it. He’s only like 5-11, 285 maybe. He plays so hard and he gets after people. He’s a good football player.
But, I don’t know, man … I was in close range for sure, and coming down to the wire, there were some calls there, watching the tape … ‘Oh, I don’t know, he might have tripped there.’ [laughs]
SDC: Oh, you’re saying the vote was rigged.
JB: Maybe, maybe. [laughs] He’s a good guy, man. I am happy he got it, but obviously I wanted to try to win it the last couple games.
SDC: Do you have a favorite block you still think about? One where maybe you peeled out, lined the guy up and just plastered him so perfectly?
JB: I have had a few over the years, but the one that I remember the most was against BYU last year. Last game of my career. We have a tackle-pull play where I am at left tackle and I am pulling around the right side and I am basically leading up on the middle linebacker. The running back is right behind me. It’s a read-option. Our quarterback can keep the ball if the D-end that’s over the left tackle crashes [down]. So I am pulling to the right, and this linebacker does not see me. The tackle on the right side did a great job, and there is a wide-open hole. And I just come and clean [the linebacker’s] clock. [laughs]
I don’t even remember what happened on the play. I think it was like a five-yard gain; the safety ended up making the play. But I cleaned it up, and it was just one of those plays where everything lined up so perfectly, and in my mind it was the greatest five-yard gain ever.
Basically, I couldn’t have missed that block. But I got a good knock on him.
SDC: OK, ready for couple of fun questions, rapid-fire?
SDC: Favorite post-game meal?
JB: Probably BJ’s Restaurant, it’s a pizza place. I went there with my family a lot, so that was a big one.
SDC: How long have you had the beard for?
JB: Honestly, I could not grow facial hair my first couple of years at Nevada. [laughs] My mom hates it, honestly. So I try to keep it as long as possible before it gets a little messy. It’s only been a couple years in the making.
SDC: Best opponent you have faced, either at Nevada or Senior Bowl?
JB: Kind of a dark horse here, but I would say Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State.
SDC: Interesting. Brett Smith mentioned him to me, too. Why him?
JB: I think he’s a heck of a player. The thing about him is he’s really good at changing up his pass rush. Some guys you go against, they’ll just bull rush you the whole time. Not him, he’d mix it up, and it kept you on your toes. He’s definitely a good player.
SDC: Favorite activity to do when you’re relaxing?
JB: I love either movies or reading books. I can watch marathon movies all the time. But I like reading as well. I have been trying to read a lot more now that I have some free time and I am not in school anymore.
SDC: Best book you’ve read and best movie you’ve seen recently?
JB: Book is easier. I read “The Lone Survivor” before the movie came out, and I love that book. The movie was good, too, but the book was amazing. Movie-wise, I just saw “American Hustle.” I thought that was amazing. Probably the best movie I have seen recently.
SDC: Best place you’ve ever visited?
JB: I have been to Hawaii like four times now because we played Hawaii almost every year. But our junior year, our basketball team went to Kona on the Big Island. It was just beautiful. We went snorkeling a few times with the turtles. I would have to say that was the coolest place I’ve ever been.
SDC: What kind of car do you drive?
JB: I had a 1999 GMC Yukon, but I sold it not long ago, so now I just rent a car.
SDC: Are you a social media guy?
JB: I’ve got a Twitter [account].
SDC: Favorite follow on Twitter?
JB: I follow a lot of people, but I am a big fan of Doug McDermott out of Creighton. I think he’s an amazing basketball player. He doesn’t post the most amazing things, but I just like following other athletes, and he’d probably be my favorite right now.
SDC: What big purchase are you looking forward to making after you sign your first pro contract?
JB: I would probably say a car. I am sort of car-less except for this rental. I am not going to go crazy or anything. I am smarter than that. Something to get me around. That’s all I need.
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