by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Last month, Drake Dunsmore returned to Northwestern to check in on his former team. The Wildcats faced a crucial matchup with Nebraska, a game that would have massive implications in the Division race. Northwestern suffered its second loss of the season, 29-28, and with it the chance to jump ahead in the Legends race.
The result stung the Wildcats in the worst possible way, sapping its momentum before the stretch run, but the greatest takeaway from that Saturday afternoon for Dunsmore was not the final outcome. It was Dan Vitale, the true freshman striving to inherit the Superback mantle Dunsmore so deftly inhabited over four years in a Wildcats uniform. Dunsmore, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ seventh-round draft pick in 2012 who accumulated 1,567 yards and 14 touchdowns on 143 receptions in 50 games, didn’t hold back when discussing the apparent progress of his replacement.
“Drake says to me after the game, ‘Wow, he’s a lot better than me’,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Vitale’s nine-catch, 110-yard effort in Northwestern’s 23-20 win over Michigan State Saturday.
When Dunsmore praised Vitale’s abilities, I’m not sure even he envisioned Vitale was capable of developing this fast this early. His 10-yd touchdown grab against Nebraska was but a small dose of Vitale's vast potential. Saturday he rose to the spotlight and lent some legitimacy to Dunsmore’s bold claims.
Up to this point, Fitzgerald and his offensive staff had worked on easing Vitale into this unique position. Learning a position that entails so many different responsibilities is not an overnight process. He needed time.
Throughout his recruitment with Northwestern, Vitale remained unsure of his position. In high school, the 6-2, 220-pound Wheaton, Ill. native played on both sides of the ball. And when it came to showcasing his skills for prospective colleges, Vitale never specialized. One thing about his college search was constant: his desire to play for Northwestern.
That’s why Fitzgerald went as far as to call Vitale “the easiest player I’ve ever recruited at Northwestern.” Vitale’s wish was granted in June 2011, when Northwestern held its one-day summer camp for recruits. He completed drills at linebacker, but NU coaches had other plans. They wanted Vitale at superback. For Vitale, positional preference was hardly the main issue. He was all-in on Northwestern, all-in on Fitzgerald’s mission for developing not just players but young men, all in on the chance to play for his in-state school.
His mind was made up before Fitzgerald could finish the question. “I looked at him and I said ‘Dan I want to offer you a scholarship, and before I got the (words) out he took it’,” Fitzgerald recalled of Vitale’s commitment. “Danny’s had a dream of playing at Northwestern and when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it.”
That was just the beginning. Of the three freshmen that declined redshirts and opted to play this season -- Vitale, defensive end Dean Lowry and safety Traveon Henry -- Vitale has progressed at the fastest pace. He was a critical piece of NU’s passing game at Spartan Stadium Saturday, when Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 246 yards and 26 completions and Vitale saved his biggest play for the fourth quarter.
“I think I’m starting to prove myself. I’m just going to keep going out there, doing my job, and doing what’s asked of me,” Vitale beamed following Saturday’s win and the quick locker room celebration that ensued.
The Wildcats entered the final period with a seven-point lead, a situation all too familiar, all too gut-wrenching, for Northwestern supporters this season. Michigan State tied the score on their first possession, Spartan Stadium erupted, and everything in that moment seemed to favor a repeat of not just last week’s blown lead at Michigan, but two other similar occurrences at Penn State and against Nebraska.
That’s when Northwestern broke its old habits with a scoring drive, and when Vitale delivered the decisive play that put the Wildcats in field goal range to ice this victory. Facing a 2nd and four from their own 31-yd line, Trevor Siemian looked up and found Vitale beating his man in space, jutting into the vast expanse in front of him, with not a single MSU defender in sight. “Maybe we caused some communication,” Siemian posited. Whatever the reason for the breakdown, Vitale made sure he took advantage of the defensive breakdown. Siemian fired a dart. “I was fortunate enough to find him and he had a great catch and run,” Siemian said.
The ensuing Jeff Budzien field goal was all Northwestern would need to move to 9-3, to put behind the pain of last week’s loss. To hear Vitale tell it is to observe a neophyte beyond his years. Most of the credit goes to Vitale, to the hard work he put in to learn his position and to make this highschool-college transition look effortless. “I think I’m starting to get a hang of everything – how the momentum swings affect the game. It’s been a fun ride and I’m ready for these last two,” Vitale said.
His rapid rise hasn’t gone unassisted, though. In fact, the very man singing his praises from the mountaintop at the Nebraska game four weeks ago provided a template for success. “Just watching him on film is incredible. He was great at attacking the leverage of the defenders. I really took that from him.”
In moments of elation it is important to temper knee-jerk reactions. Vitale is indeed one of the most promising storylines of Northwestern’s 2012-13 season. He has skipped the usual growing pains and morphed into one of the Wildcats most dynamic offensive weapons. That said, he has not yet outgrown his predecessor.
Dunsmore’s description, his deferral of abilities, isn’t yet grounded in fact. More than anything else, it is a projection. Still, after Saturday’s spotlight effort, it’s hard to deny the obvious. Vitale is nearly there, on the verge of rivaling the man whose departure after last season felt irreplaceable. Vitale hasn’t just replaced Dunsmore; he’s nearly surpassed him.