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Northwestern Snippet and Stat: 10/11

Snippet of the Day: Once a Linebacker, Once a Running Back, Now a Superback

Dan Vitale has never met the man with whom he is most frequently compared. Yet, he certainly knows of him.

Drake Dunsmore made an enormous impact during his time in Evanston, setting the school record for receiving yards by a tight end, while winning the inaugural Big Ten Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award in 2011. Amazingly enough, Dunsmore had never played organized football before high school. Four years later, he was named to the 2008 Sporting News Big Ten All-Freshman Team.

"I've never personally talked to Drake," Vitale said. "I have actually watched a lot of his film. (Northwestern superbacks coach Bob Heffner) always talks about Drake. Maybe he didn't start out as the best routerunner, but he became an unbelievable, incredible routerunner so I watch a lot of his routes and how he attacks leverages, gets defenders' hands off of him and everything like that, so I've learned a ton from Drake, especially through film."

The two differ greatly in their roots. Dunsmore was primarily a tight end during his time at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Olathe, Kansas. He had 56 receptions for 841 yards and nine touchdowns his senior season of high school. While Dunsmore was a highly ranked tight end out of high school, Vitale was considered more of a prospect at defensive back and wide receiver. Northwestern linebackers coach Randy Bates even recruited him as a potential linebacker. Meanwhile, in his senior season at Wheaton Warrenville High School, Vitale served as the Tigers' star running back, rushing for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns. All told, Vitale might actually be more developed than Dunsmore was when he arrived in Evanston, despite the flurry of positions he has played.

"He's played some tight end on the line which we did not do with Drake in 2009, we did a tiny bit in 2010, and then a little bit more the following year in 2011," Heffner said. "So for him to come in as a freshman and do that right away, he's done a real good job of what he's been asked to do."

Vitale is one of only several true freshmen to see playing time this season. In fact, he's the only true freshman listed in the starting lineup for this weekend's contest against Minnesota.

"We've been playing since as far back as I can remember," Vitale said. "It feels like I've been here forever but as soon as you get into it, you get into the groove. It's just like practice in the games, you know, everyone's the same speed, whether you're at practice or in a game, you just have that kind of mentality — try to be perfect, do your job and if you're catching balls at practice, be ready for it in a game, it's coming to you. I wasn't too shocked."

According to Heffner, Vitale won the position outright, proving he was the best man for the job, despite his age.

"When we came to camp, we did not know whether Dan was going to be the guy playing at that position," Heffner said. "He won the position. He won it in camp. There was competition and he won the position, so it's to his credit and right now he's getting to play a role every week."

Vitale's workload varies from week to week, according to Heffner. In some games, he's been in for as many as 40 plays. Last week, he was only in for 20, which is still a decent workload, given all of the work that Vitale does on special teams.

Of course, it might not be as big a role as Vitale is used to. One season ago, Vitale was putting up ridiculous numbers as Wheaton Warrenville South's tailback. Now, instead of rushing the ball 20 times a game for 200-plus yards, the freshman superback is lucky if he gets the ball once or twice in a ballgame. In fact, Vitale hasn't caught a ball since his six-yard grab in Northwestern's blowout victory over South Dakota. While some might resent the drop in opportunities, Vitale seemed unruffled, even delighted, by the switch.

"The difference is that everyone is just as good as everyone else out there," Vitale said. "Everyone's a ballplayer so you don't have to rely on one guy, which is a great thing to have especially on our team. I just go out there and do my job, do what's asked of me, and everyone's got to do that, and that's what you need to put together a great team. It's not just one player, so I'm enjoying the fact that we have all of those guys that we can rely on as teammates and brothers. It's great to have a bunch of playmakers."

Vitale doesn't just have to adjust to a reduced role. He also has to adjust to a different position and a different role. His greatest contributions no longer show up on the stats sheet. Instead, they've been in the nitty-gritty elements of the game, particularly as a blocker, where Vitale has excelled. Heffner said that Vitale is a "very good" blocker and added that Vitale coped well in Happy Valley, even when he was matched up with Penn State's far bulkier defensive ends. Vitale agreed, noting that he put together one of his finest blocking performances of the season against Penn State. In the meanwhile, he was initiated into the Big Ten in front of 95,769 strong at Beaver Stadium.

"It was an incredible environment," Vitale said. "I did get a big taste of the whole big-crowd environment, how to put momentum into the game and how quickly momentum can be taken away, especially in a Big Ten dogfight like that."

Overall, Vitale has proven to be a quick learner during his brief time in Evanston. Vitale has taken his new role and run with it, even though his responsibilities are far different than they were in high school. According to Heffner, Vitale has proven an active student of the game, even when Heffner wasn't around.

"The biggest thing is he got with the older guys and he learned the offense. He had a pretty good knowledge of things before I started coaching him in the fall, just from being around the older guys and listening to everything. Some guys have the knack to be able to do that on their own without coaches being around him at all. That's the biggest thing he did," Heffner said. "He had a base so when we came into camp and I started actually teaching him, it wasn't completely foreign to him. I could really concentrate on doing things technique wise with him more than just teaching him play by play by play."

Perhaps the biggest fear afflicting Heffner is injuries. Heffner had to watch his last superback, Dunsmore, battle injury after injury during his time with the Wildcats. Those injuries cost Dunsmore his 2008 season, which he had to sit out with a torn ACL, and forced him to miss consecutive spring seasons, as he took the time to rehab from various ailments. Thus far, Vitale has been healthy, which is an improvement in its own right.

"Knock on wood," Heffner said. "Yes, he came in in excellent shape. So far, so good, I hate to even say that. I don't want to jinx anything. He has taken, we try not to put him in really tough situations against a guy who he's physically outmatched with, but in the same boat, there are times when he has to go in and do that job and he's done it very well."

Stat of the Day: Correlation, Not Causation

It's highly unlikely that throwing multiple interceptions actually helps the Wildcats win games, unless it somehow serves as a motivator, but it's still fun to note that Northwestern has won the last three games in which it has tossed multiple picks. Last year, Northwestern threw two picks in its biggest upset of the year, a win at No. 9 Nebraska, and it also threw two interceptions in its win over Rice. This year, the Wildcats threw two interceptions in a relatively easy win over the Hoosiers. While interceptions certainly don't lead to victories, not by any right, Northwestern's ability to recover from its own mistakes bears mentioning. Also, the fact that the Wildcats have only tossed multiple picks in four games over the last three years, from 2010 through 2012, speaks highly of the intelligent quarterbacking they've had during that time, first with Dan Persa behind center and then with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian taking the snaps.