Nearly every prospect we’ve spoken to for our Draft Prep series has a chip on his shoulder, or continues to be slept on. Joel Bitonio is no exception. A two-star recruit out of Woodrow Wilson (Calif.) High School, he hustled his way to the top of Nevada’s depth chart, only to be told he’d be a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick last summer.
Bitonio subsequently earned All-Mountain West honors, shut down highly-touted UCLA pass rusher Anthony Barr one-on-one, and is now slated to go as high as the first round when the 2014 NFL Draft kicks off two weeks from Thursday. [We have him going No. 28 to the Panthers in our official Mock Draft. —Ed.]
“I’m one of the most athletic and versatile guys, and I’m going to come in and compete my ass off every day,” Bitonio told TDdaily on Friday. “I think that’s one thing that separates me—I’m a relentless guy on the field.”
Bitonio breaks down his expectations for Draft day, a potential shift from offensive tackle to guard, and playing basketball at 315 pounds. Check it.
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TDdaily: Reports indicated that you were one of the standout lineman at this year’s NFL Combine. What clicked that day?
Joel Bitonio: I attribute that to my training. We did a bunch of mock combines leading up to the event, so once I got there it was just time to perform. I knew I was pretty athletic, but I was still nervous. Once you get the first 40 out of the way, though, everything else is gravy after that. I was doing well and I knew I could handle it.
TD: Did you have goals or times you wanted to hit?
JB: I definitely wanted to run the 40 in under 5 [seconds], and I did that. I actually set a personal record on the broad jump there, and on the vertical I did about what I was doing the week before. Everything was pretty on par with what I thought I was going to do, so I was happy.
TD: How do you think you stack up with the other O-linemen in this year’s Draft?
JB: I think it’s a really good class with a lot of talent. But looking at what I’ve seen them do on film and at the Combine and the Senior Bowl, I think I stack up pretty favorably. I’m one of the most athletic and versatile guys, and I’m going to come in and compete my ass off every day. I think that’s one thing that separates me: I’m a relentless guy on the field. But the whole class looks really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it shapes up.
TD: Mock drafts have you going as high as the first round now.
JB: It’s so crazy, man. Coming into my senior season, people were telling me that I would be a sixth- or seventh-round pick. I hadn’t played a single game that year but I was already like, “come on, I’m better than that!” It’s nice now to finally get a little love. But you still don’t know what’s going to happen until Draft Day comes.
TD: As a Los Angeles native, did you grow up rooting for a particular team? Would you want to be drafted by a team in California?
JB: I was actually a Cowboys fan growing up.
TD: For real?
JB: [Laughs] I know. It doesn’t really make any sense. But the last two years, once you get closer to actually making the NFL, those lines blur and you just care about playing for anyone. Whoever takes me, that’s my team; that’s who I’m loyal to. Being close to home would be okay, but honestly I just want an opportunity. If I end up in Minnesota, Green Bay, New York, so be it. Let’s go play some football.
TD: What do you think about a potential transition to guard? Do you still think you’ll be able to play tackle at the pros?
JB: It’s funny, people ask me about it, and I don’t think I really have a choice! If a team drafts me and says I need to play guard, then I’m all for it. I played a bit of guard at the Senior Bowl and I’ve been training at the position without pads for a bit now. It would take some getting used to, but I’ve been a football player my whole life. Give me a few weeks and I’ll get it. I’ve played tackle for the past five years of my career, so that’s what I know right now. I would be more comfortable there to start. But seriously, just a few days at guard and I’d be ready to go. Whatever helps my team.
TD: You missed a Bowl game for the first time in your career this winter.
JB: It was tough. This was a transition year after losing our senior class and our coaching staff. We started only, like, three seniors this year. There were a lot of games we should have won, a lot of close ones that will swing our way with more experience. We were a young team, and the second-half collapses will stop. I think they have a bright future. They have a lot of playmakers coming back.
TD: What will Nevada look like without you and the rest of your class?
JB: We lost a receiver, our punter, and me, but besides that the whole team is coming back. Our quarterback [Cody Fajardo] is a stud, and we return four offensive linemen. With another year of experience I think the team can compete for a Mountain West Championship.
TD: Tell us about your relationship with Jeff Nady, who you started alongside for two years. He’s with the Jaguars now.
JB: He’s a good dude, man. When I first got to Nevada, they tried to keep the offensive line together to create chemistry. He and Chris Barker, who plays for the Patriots now, both took me under their wing. They helped me understand what was required to succeed at this next level. Having a player that good on the other side of you is really assuring. It also gives you a chance to have a bit of slack. If you have someone holding down their side, you can afford to slip up every once in a while. He’s a great guy, we just talked the other day actually. I respect the crap out of him.
TD: What about Colin Kaepernick? Have you two connected recently?
JB: I played two years with him, as a redshirt and a freshman. He’s a good leader. I know some people question his dedication to the game and all that, but he was the first one in the weight room and the last one out. He did everything he needed to do to be the best player he could be. He comes back to the school sometimes but I haven’t seen him recently. I wish him all the best.
TD: So between being home and blocking for your old teammate, playing for the Niners would be really crazy.
JB: Yeah man. A lot of people in Northern Nevada root for them too, so it’s been pushed my way a lot. I tell people I don’t get to choose, of course.
TD: What are your plans for Draft night?
JB: I’ll probably be in Long Beach, to be honest. Just stay home with my mom, my brother, my sister, my girlfriend and maybe a few aunts and uncles. Nothing crazy, though. I’m going to be so humbled by the whole experience. It’s going to be a dream come true. It’s really unbelievable. The last month or so has been busy, and it’s cool when teams work you out, but now I’m just realizing how close I am. My name is going to be called in the Draft. I don’t know what feelings I’m going to feel when that happens.
TD: Did one of the team workouts stand out to you?
JB: I felt comfortable with all of them, honestly. I worked out with the Colts and their O-line coach the day after my Pro Day, and that felt like really good fit. That team seemed down to earth. But I feel like I’m going to fit in wherever I end up. O-linemen are just a different breed, and I think I’ll connect with my unit regardless.
TD: It seems like every year, offensive linemen have the biggest adjustment to make from college to the pros. What accounts for such a long transition?
JB: Every down, you’re going against a stud. A starting defense in the NFL looks so different than one in college. You have to have your step right every snap. The speed of the game is going to be tough, and I have to make sure that I’m technical every single play and always playing hard. You get embarrassed if you don’t.
TD: What do you anticipate being your biggest focus during training camp?
JB: I think the first thing I’ll do is focus on learning the playbook. Once you know what you’re doing from that standpoint, the rest slows down a lot. If you’re hesitant because you’re lost on a play, you get into trouble. My hand placement is also something I want to work on. You can get away with bad hand placement every so often in college, but you have to keep your hands inside on a guy or else you’ll pay for it in the pros.
TD: Is there a scheme you feel most comfortable in? Maybe a zone like Nevada?
JB: We were mostly zone schemes here, but sometimes we would go man-to-man or gap. We ran the read-option a lot, so it was mostly zone. That would probably be the most comfortable to start. But we ran a lot of power formations when our backfield got banged up later in the season, so I feel comfortable with that, too. I think a majority of the teams in the NFL do a combination of a few different schemes, at least from what I’ve heard and seen.
TD: No doubt, we wish you luck with that. We heard that you used to play basketball in high school. Can you still hoop?
JB: Yeah man. I haven’t played in the past few months because there’s a lot riding on me right now, and I wouldn’t want to risk anything [laughs]. But at Nevada, I played on an intramural team and finally won the championship my junior year. It took four tries to get it though, because there were some sharpshooters in that league. Basketball was one of the first sports I really enjoyed, and I love getting out there and running around on the court still.
TD: What’s your pregame routine like?
JB: I’m pretty easy-going before the game. I want to stay calm, and I don’t try to get pumped up with hardcore rap or anything like that. I’ll wake up in the morning, do the walk through, eat a big breakfast, then come back to the room and take a nap. Even if I got, like, 10 and a half hours of sleep that night, I still nap before kickoff. I also take a shower to wake myself up. Then a real late lunch, like chicken or pasta or a salad. Then I joke around in the locker room a bit, but once we get out there and start to warm up, that’s when I turn the serious switch on. If I have to wake someone up and get in their face a bit, so be it.
TD: No hardcore rap? What have you been listening to?
JB: A little bit of everything, mainly country or some old school rock-and-roll. If rap comes on I won’t necessarily change it. But I don’t have a set playlist. Some guys are pretty superstitious.
TD: No kidding. I talked to Kareem Martin, and he’s been listening to the same mixtape his whole career.
JB: [Laughs] I worked out with Kareem for a while in California. He’s a good dude.
Steven Goldstein is a TDdaily contributor based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Steven_L_G. Photo via USA TODAY Images. See more from our Draft Prep interview series here!