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Northwestern Football Post-Spring Unit Breakdowns: Superback

Returning starter: Dan Vitale (So)

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

Incoming recruitsJayme Taylor

Depth Chart Projection

1. Dan Vitale

2. Mark Szott or Jack Schwaba

3. Doug Diedrick

Explaining the Depth Chart:

This depth chart doesn’t need a thorough explanation. Dan Vitale won the starting superback job out of preseason camp last season, and his development since has been remarkable to behold. From his early-weeks feel-out period, when Vitale was used almost exclusively as a blocker, to a nine-catch, 110-yard performance at Michigan State, Vitale evolved into one of Northwestern’s most reliable offensive weapons. The best part? He was just a true freshman.

Behind Vitale are two bigger yet less polished alternatives. Schwaba redshirted last season after a productive high school career at Upper St. Clair (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) while Szott saw some action on special teams and offense, almost all of it in nondescript reserve work. These two battled during spring practice, and when camp closed out for good last Saturday, I left feeling wholly convinced the Wildcats had a dead-even tie for the backup superback spot, which explains the arrangement you see above. Diedrick had some bright spots during spring camp, but unless things change between now and the end of summer workouts, it looks like he’ll enter the season as a lower-depth chart last resort.

Stock up: Dan Vitale

It’s not like Vitale entered camp needing to secure his position or anything like that. His 16 catches and 192 yards over the final three games were confirmation enough of Vitale’s impressive development. Spring practice was a continuation of last season’s positive trajectory – Vitale looks quicker, stronger and overall more comfortable with the unique demands of Northwestern’s unique position. It’s safe to say the Wildcats have a potential star at a position not entirely conducive to producing them. After a year gaining his footing and learning the ins and outs of one of the most physical conferences in the country, Vitale is ready for more in 2013.

Stock down: No one 

There are four superbacks, and none of them noticeably regressed during spring workouts. If there’s one minor point of concern, it’s Szott, who entered the spring as the most obvious choice for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Szott didn’t necessarily relinquish that status this spring. It just felt, from my detached sideline perspective, that Schwaba was the more active and more dynamic on-field presence, and that he handled the various responsibilities of the position – blocking, catching, and so on – with fluidity and precision.

Szott was likewise impressive; it’s just that Schwaba is just now settling in with the first team after sitting out all of last season, and he already seems to be picking up the offense at a quicker rate than Szott ever did. The bottom line is neither player’s “stock” is pointing downward. Depth chart considerations will be fleshed out during summer workouts. Consider the above paragraph trifling banter intended to fill an otherwise irrelevant space.

Position battle: Dan Vitale vs. Himself?

After a thrilling win in East Lansing last season, when Vitale erupted for nine catches and 110 yards, the idea crept into my head: is it just me, or does Vitale have everything Drake Dunsmore did – speed, size, great hands, intuitive football smarts – only at an earlier stage of his development? At first it seemed like an ambitious notion to consider, because Vitale is just a true freshman, and true freshmen aren’t supposed to be this good this early.

But then Fitzgerald basically echoed my sentiments, and not just once, by relaying, in various forms, what the evidence on the field was consistently showcasing: a first-year player well ahead of where Dunsmore was during his first season. Vitale was just getting his feet wet last season, and now the only thing holding him back from becoming an even more effective offensive threat is his own set of personal limitations. Everything is pointing up for Northwestern’s sophomore superback.

Biggest offseason question: What Is Dan Vitale’s Ceiling In year two?

The most recent games leave the strongest impressions, and if you were to look at the final portion of Vitale’s season (excluding the Illinois game, and the undoubtedly skewed statistical reflections captured within), you would expect him to morph into an All-Big Ten-type in his second season. His responsibilities grew more complex as he assumed a more prominent place in the offense during those final three games, and Vitale responded exactly the way most true freshmen would not – by hurdling every challenge thrown his way.

Superback is a difficult position to learn in four seasons, much less master in one. Vitale can learn and grow as a pass-catcher and blocker, and as he improves physically and mentally over the next three seasons, it will be fascinating to watch him realize the outer limits of his vast potential. We should see the next step of his evolution next season, and based off what Vitale showed near the tail end of last year, along with the minimal observations drawn from spring practice, there is every reason to believe Vitale will be better and more productive than he was in 2012.

Catches and yards and touchdowns are the most convenient grading sticks, but I encourage you to carefully observe what Vitale does when he doesn’t have the ball. That part of the game – the blocking and backfield awareness – is just as important, if not as statistically glamorous, as anything else a superback is tasked with. Vitale’s offensive numbers spiked in December, and the other aspects of the superback position came easier to him as he garnered more repetitions and added differing blitz packages and defensive sets to his mental protection hard drive.

This season I want to see where both components – the numerically appeasing fantasy football stuff and the backfield dirty work – take Vitale. I want to see him own the position and all its disparate responsibilities. I want to see Vitale take the superback position to a place no Northwestern player (not even Dunsmore) has ever before.

Post-Spring Breakdowns So Far

Offensive line, Defensive line, Wide Receiver