by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Hometown: Wheaton, Illinois
Star rating: two-star, No. 139 S
Ht/Wt: 6-2, 220 pounds
Other offers: Central Michigan
What’s to like
If you’re a prospective football recruit, surveying a list of interested programs, it’s hard to do better than landing at your “dream school.” But that’s exactly what happened with Vitale. After visiting campus for a spring scrimmage last April, he was completely sold on NU. Some two months later, Vitale committed while attending a minicamp at the school, where he impressed coaches at linebacker. It’s a position that seems a natural fit for Vitale, who at 6-2, 220 pounds fits coach Pat Fitzgerald’s preference for smaller, quicker players at the position. He played linebacker, defensive back and running back in high school, and most schools—like NU, at first—wanted him to contribute on the defensive side of the ball. It now appears he will play superback, where his running and pass-catching skills will be instrumental in helping Vitale make the transition into the college game.
He helped lead Wheaton Warrenville South to consecutive Illinois 7A state championships and was drawing interest from BCS conference schools after an impressive junior season. Out of all 21 2012 pledges, Vitale may be the most enthusiastic about his college career, which points to a positive attitude, the sort of upbeat mentality that coach Fitzgerald brings to every team meeting, practice and game. In that context, Vitale should thrive at NU, both on the field and as a proactive vocal presence. It remains to be seen how he will perform at superback, mostly because it’s a fairly new position. Vitale was a versatile player in high school, embracing three different positions, but none of them carried the wide array of responsibilities demanded at superback. It’s a unique position that requires a strong blocker and pass-catcher, different from a conventional tight end in its importance to the passing game. Whereas college tight ends are, first and foremost, asked to block, superbacks must be skilled receivers. Drake Dunsmore, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, epitomized the pass-block demarcation better than perhaps any other player to suit up at the position.
Which is not to say Vitale needs to be Dunsmore in order to have a successful career at NU. That’s a near-impossibly high bar to reach. He just needs to use the versatility—good running, pass catching and blocking ability—he exhibited in high school while maximizing his physical traits, all in the effort of becoming the best player he can be. Vitale is a talented athlete with plenty of upside, plus the positive attitude to hone his craft and look for improvement around every margin.
Prospects for next season
Dunsmore’s departure leaves a muddled superback depth chart, with Tim Riley, Evan Watkins, Mark Szott, true freshman Jack Schwaba and Vitale all expected to compete for playing time this season. The Wildcats may end up going with a committee-type approach, with each two or three-man contingent contributing to situational specifics. The competition is fairly wide open, and Vitale has a legitimate chance to win some playing time this season. Yet at this early stage of training camp, Schwaba, Riley and Szott appear to have the upper hand, which leaves Vitale—barring a strong push up the depth chart over the next two and a half weeks—on the outside looking in. The best-case scenario for Vitale is that he win the backup job and play significant snaps this season. More realistically, he will redshirt, add some weight, refine his pass-catching and blocking skills, then return and play a major role next season. For a player with so much enthusiasm and positive energy, redshirting may not seem like the best approach, but it’s probably the best option for Vitale. No use in wasting a year on minimal playing time and special teams duties when that eligibility can be used in more productive ways down the road, when Vitale stands a better chance of playing on offense more often.
What he’s saying
“It’s unbelievable, I told my parents (about the commitment), and you can’t make your parents any happier when you tell them you’re going to Northwestern,” Vitale told PurpleWildcats.Com after committing last June. “I called my grandparents and they were crying. It’s unreal.”
What they’re saying
“He’s got great hands, he’s big, he’s strong and more importantly, he’s fast. He’s a consummate team player, a great leader and very dedicated to the sport of football. He fits a lot of characteristics that a football team likes to build around in today’s world.”—Ron Muhitch, Wheaton Warrenville South head coach.