Vitale ready for even bigger role

Last season, Dan Vitale shocked everyone as a true freshman. Now with a full year under his belt, the athletic superback gives Northwestern's offense a completely new dimension.

When Drake Dunsmore graduated in the spring of 2012, trading touchdowns at Ryan Field for practice squad reps with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Northwestern figured to take a huge hit. A three-year starter with a penchant for snagging long receptions, Dunsmore perfected the Wildcats' nuanced superback position.

Lining up everywhere from tight end to fullback, the superback is a perpetually moving piece in Northwestern's offense. It requires equal parts strength and speed; equal parts smarts and athleticism; equal parts wideout and lineman. Needless to say, it's a position that figures to come with a steep learning curve.

Tell that to Dan Vitale.

As a true freshman, Vitale earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors after scrapping his way into the starting lineup before Opening Day. A speedy blocker off the switch, the Wheaton, Ill. native won fans over with his surprising downfield playmaking. Notching nine catches for 110 yards against Michigan State and seven grabs for 82 yards in the Gator Bowl, Vitale's late-season emergence has built massive individual expectations for 2013.

"I thought last year, we brought him along at a pace to be successful," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of his superback's progression. "I thought that plan was great; now we've seen success and confidence."

That confidence manifests itself in just about every inch of the field. Whether attacking a safety or taking on run defenders, Vitale is already one of the most active Wildcats despite his youth. Still, he knows there's a long way to go before reaching the superback position's full potential.

"Right now, I'm just trying to get better at the little things, improve my technique on routes against man coverage," Vitale said.

With no clear-cut No. 1 option in the receiving corps yet, an improved Vitale could wind up being the recipient of a healthy amount of targets in September. But as a superback, he can't afford to key in on just hands and routes.

"I have to start blocking better with my legs," Vitale said, noting that his upper body strength paces his current blocking style. He added that if Northwestern's run blocking improves on the edge, the Cats can be one of the best teams in the country.

Vitale doesn't emphasize 2013 as a chance to break out individually. When asked about his expectations for play calling this season after seeing more reps in NU's final four games, he said, "Our offense isn't built around one player; we're one team."

Vitale laughs when offensive tackle Shane Mertz walks through the locker room and cracks a joke, then goes on to list wideout Christian Jones as a role model. It highlights Vitale's superback duality, and more importantly, it highlights his desire to not attack anything alone. Especially as a superback, he knows the importance of teamwork in various formations.

"The tough part about [the superback position] is, depending on where we're at on the field, the defense doesn't know what type of personnel grouping is going on," he said. "We can run, pass, I can even run the ball."

Regardless of where he's put, Vitale knows that his unique talent gives the Cats a dangerous new dimension.

"If I'm able to do more than I did last year, it'll leave defenses vulnerable," he said. "We'll be able to take advantage of that."

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