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Spring Superbacks Breakdown: How Will Dan Vitale's Role Change?

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

After the graduation of Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern had a major opening at superback. But the Wildcats’ suberback of the future, Dan Vitale, turned out to be a very viable option in the present. This year, Vitale will be the spotlighted once again, but should have an increased role in the offense. How much so? We take a look.

Returning starter: Dan Vitale (So)

Others returning: Mark Szott (So), Jack Schwaba (RS Fr), Doug Diedrick (So)

Incoming recruits: Jayme Taylor

Biggest Spring Question: How will Dan Vitale’s role change?

At the beginning of last season, even with the graduation of Drake Dunsmore, there wasn’t much urgency about finding a replacement at superback. Northwestern had no experienced players on the roster to take his place, but the wide receiver unit was very deep, so there were a lot of potential replacements in the passing game. Maybe a superback wouldn’t excel, but the superbacks wouldn’t get many targets anyways.

Neither of those things turned out to be true. The wide receivers struggled early on and never had as much production in the receiving game as was expected, and at superback, true freshman Dan Vitale emerged to do more than just about anyone expected.

Vitale was a two-star safety recruit coming out of high school, but NU recruited him as a superback. Most people figured he was undersized to be a superback right away, but he put on some weight and became the starting superback from day one.

Vitale was a factor immediately, but his production dramatically increased at the end of the season. In the first third of the season, he had 5 receptions for 31 yards. In the second third, he had 5 receptions for 35 yards. In the last third, plus the bowl game, he had 18 receptions for 222 yards. His two best games — 9-for-110 against Michigan State and 7-for-82 against Mississippi State — came in the final three games of the season.

Now the question becomes how Vitale’s increased role carries over into next year. Pat Fitzgerald said on numerous occasions that Vitale was ahead of where Dunsmore was as a freshman. That’s certainly true from a production standpoint, as Dunsmore had just 141 yards on 11 receptions in 11 games.

Fitzgerald clearly has confidence in his young superback, so it’s not crazy to expect Vitale to take a major jump like Dunsmore did. Dunsmore was expected to play a major role in the offense in 2008, but he was injured during fall camp. He went on to have 47 receptions for 523 yards in 2009.

It’s tough to expect Vitale’s production to jump that much, simply because NU won’t pass the ball as much in 2013 as it did in 2009, the height of the Mike Kafka years. However, it’s not crazy to expect Vitale to be one of the Wildcats’ top receiving targets this year. He’ll also be a major playing in the run blocking game, since he’s a big guy who has the speed to block on the perimeter for a running back or quarterback running the option.

Considering how he ended the season and how well he fits into the offense, both in the run blocking and receiving game, Vitale is a candidate to have a breakout year in 2013. Versatility is key in NU’s offense, and Vitale has proven to be as versatile, and as capable, as his predecessor.

Our best guess at the depth chart

1. Dan Vitale (So)
2. Mark Szott (So)
3. Jack Schwaba (RS Fr)
4. Doug Diedrick (So)
Redshirt — Jayme Taylor (Fr)

Check out our other position breakdowns so far: QuarterbackDefensive lineSecondaryLinebackerOffensive lineRunning Backs, Wide Receivers