Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Pat Fitzgerald is big on downplaying hype, especially when it comes to recruits and young players — "let them earn it," he'll say. However, every once in awhile, Fitzgerald pays one of his young stars a major compliment out of the blue, and last September, superback Dan Vitale was perhaps the first freshman to earn such high praise.
"I think he's a little farther ahead than Drake as a true freshman, I really do, just from a standpoint of Danny is really comfortable with the ball in his hands just because of his background," Fitzgerald said, as quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times. "We'll see how it progresses. Don't write this the wrong way. He's not Drake Dunsmore. But comparing them as freshman he's probably a little stronger physically than Drake was. Hopefully, Danny will continue to embrace what Drake did and hopefully stay a little bit healthier."
At that point, as the article notes, Vitale had caught just 4 passes for 25 yards through three games. But as the year went on, Vitale's role increased, and so did his production. He caught 9 passes for 110 yards against Michigan State and 7 passes for 82 yards against Mississippi State, and by the end of the year, he had accumulated 28 receptions for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns. Judging by his numbers at the end of the year, he likely would have continued to play an increased role had the season been a few games longer.
Now the question becomes whether the numbers can keep building into next year, and if so, can Vitale have a breakout year like Dunsmore did in his sophomore season? Vitale's numbers were actually better than Dunsmore's as a freshman. Dunsmore finished with just 11 receptions for 141 yards as a freshman. However, after sitting out a year due to injury, Dunsmore exploded for 523 yards on 47 receptions in his redshirt sophomore season, and over his final three seasons at NU, he became one of the Wildcats' top receiving targets.
It's unfair to expect Vitale to put up those kind of numbers because 1) it would be tough for anyone to emulate and 2) NU threw the ball 531 times for 3,725 yards in 2009. The Wildcats threw it just 369 times for 2,198 yards in 2012 and should be similarly run-based this season, so Vitale can't be expected to have the same output as Dunsmore. Plus, NU will have a lot of good receivers, so an already limited number of passes will be targeted to a number of different players, leading to lower receiving totals for each player. However, it's fair to question whether Vitale can have as much of an impact on the receiving game as Dunsmore did in his sophomore year.
Dunsmore was NU's ninth leading receiver as a freshman, accumulating just 3.8 percent of the Wildcats' receiving yards. As a sophomore, he was the team's third leading receiver and accumulated 14 percent of its receiving yards. Vitale was NU's fifth leading receiver last year, accumulating 10.4 percent of its yards. Can he be responsible for as much yardage in 2013 as Dunsmore was in 2009? It's tough to tell, but he's certainly capable of it. Competition for receptions — and therefore, yardage — will be tough next year, but Vitale is right in there with Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Cameron Dickerson as one of NU's top targets.
So maybe Vitale isn't "the next Drake Dunsmore" just yet. However, he was a bigger contributor than Dunsmore was as a freshman and he certainly has the potential to be just as big of a contributor as a sophomore. If he can keep up this kind of production, it will be one heck of a run for NU superbacks.