Most Valuable Wildcats — No. 9: Dan Vitale

After a strong finish to his freshman season, Dan Vitale earns the No. 9 spot on our list of Most Valuable Wildcats.

Oh, did the panic button ever settle in when Drake Dunsmore graduated. The former Northwestern standout superback went to the NFL Draft, and the Wildcats were left searching for his eventual replacement.

Dan Vitale was among the least flashy 2012 signings for NU. Pat Fitzgerald offered the sleeper local prospect from Warrenville South HS (Ill.) and Vitale committed immediately. It was his dream. But not only did Vitale embrace the opportunity, he also sought to make an immediate impact and succeeded.

There are some talented receivers on this team. Rashad Lawrence looks poised for a breakout season. Cameron Dickerson could break out on the perimeter. Christian Jones provides some major matchup difficulties for opponents. Something about Vitale, though, gives him the edge in these rankings. He's their ace in the hole with suddenly high potential, and was one of the great surprises of the 2012 season.

This is judging his potential. Is it premature to think that Vitale will immediately be a top-10 impact player? Perhaps, but I'm going with it. At the end of the season, he developed excellent rapport with both guys under center. Vitale first gained significant attention after hauling in his first career touchdown pass against Nebraska. The breakout came quickly.

He had nine receptions for 110 yards in the crucial road win at Michigan State. Afterwards, Fitzgerald recounted the story of his uneventful commitment, and Vitale was left as one of the rare impact freshmen on NU in 2012. This is a five-year program.

They don't rush through the process; it's not an indictment of a player if he redshirts his first season. Nick VanHoose was a quiet redshirt and then in the offseason became the best cornerback on NU. But Vitale proved he was ready, and reaped the reward of immediate playing time.

It still required a process for him to find consistent success on the field. He didn't have a reception for 10 yards or more until that Nebraska game on Oct. 20. Those receiving instincts eventually shone through, leading to the incredible outings against Michigan State and in the Gator Bowl victory.

Vitale showed that his outing in East Lansing was no fluke. He altered the game and frustrated the Bulldogs defense to the tune of seven catches for 82 yards. We missed the senior class, sure, but it's nice to know that superback position is locked down for future seasons.

We project that Vitale's output this season will look more like those final games. Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall have this entire offseason to figure out ways to involve this ace in the hole. And if last season is any indication, Vitale certainly won't disappoint.

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