This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the running backs.
Key Losses: None
Returning Starters: Dan Vitale
Other Key Returners: Mark Szott (???), Jack Schwaba (???)
Why 2012 Was Better: 2012 was supposed to be a major question mark at superback after the departure of star Drake Dunsmore and a group of unproven true (Vitale and Schwaba) and redshirt (Szott) freshmen. However, Vitale quickly became one of Northwestern's most utilized freshmen, and by the end of the year he had put up better numbers than Dunsmore did in his freshman year.
In the last four games of the season, in particular, Vitale was a stud. He was key to NU's victory over Michigan State and was also a major contributor in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. His pass catching skills will obviously be the first thing people notice, but he was also key to blocking on the edge and downfield for the Wildcats' underrated run blocking game. Simply put, Vitale was very good, better than anyone expected. What if he doesn't live up the the expectations he showed as a freshman?
Why 2013 Will Be Better: Vitale wasn't just good for a freshman in 2012 — he was an overall downright good player. This year, he'll have a year's worth of experience, and judging by how he ended the season, he looks like he'll be one of NU's prime targets in 2013. We mentioned above that Vitale was actually better than Dunsmore as a freshman, but Dunsmore made a big jump in his (redshirt) sophomore year. Can Vitale do the same? The numbers suggest that he can.
NU will be a run-based team again in 2013, so like all of the Wildcats' receivers, Vitale's numbers won't be outstanding to the untrained eye. However, he's expected to be one of the team's leading targets and he'll be essential in the run blocking game once again. Add in the fact that Vitale has some talented players behind him in Schwaba and Szott, and NU looks much more set at superback than it did last year.
This Year or Last Year: This Year
It's amazing to think just how thin NU looked at superback this time last year. Heck, there was talk of the Wildcats not even playing a superback and just playing more of their supposedly star-studded wide receiver. Now, Vitale has emerged as one of NU's biggest threats in the passing game and he's an asset in the run blocking game. Not bad for a recruit many schools wanted as a safety.
We always have to throw in the qualifier that we're not going to predict injuries, because if that were the case, the Wildcats could struggle at superback this year. However, barring any injury issues, it's tough to see this unit not getting better. There's potential star power in Vitale, who looks prime to break out as a sophomore, and there is considerably more depth than there was last year. If Vitale can stay healthy and stay on the path he showed potential for as a freshman, NU will have quite the run of successful superbacks.