We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
Recruiting rankings did not do Vitale any favors. He entered Northwestern as one of 2012’s less heralded prospects, a two-star prospect with one MAC offer (Central Michigan). If you were to believe what most national and midwest scouts believed – or, conversely, if you were willing to overlook the same qualities most scouts did – Vitale’s 2012 season came as a total shock. The graduation of Drake Dunsmore after the 2011 season created an opening at superback, but of all of NU’s possible replacements, few outsiders could have reasonably projected Vitale to seize the starting job.
Becoming the starter was the first step. Vitale did much more than that. By the end of the season, after making steady improvements in every discipline required of his position – catching, blocking, running after the catch – Vitale had grown into one of Northwestern’s most valuable receiving threats. His breakout game came against Michigan State, when Vitale hauled in nine passes for 110 yards – the first 100-plus yard receiving game for an NU superback since Dunsmore in 2011. He finished the season with another mini flourish, catching eight passes for 82 yards in the Wildcats’ Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State and leaving no illusion that his freshman season was anything close to lucky or unsustainable.
The production you saw from Vitale last season will be maintained, and probably eclipsed this season. People always talk about the sophomore “leap” players tend to make after their first seasons of college football. That could happen to Vitale, but I happen to think he made that leap sometime last season. His improvements from here on out will be more gradual and incremental, but no less significant. He can be just as good as Dunsmore was – if not this year, then certaintly sometime down the line.
Even if he doesn’t get there this season, Vitale will remain a key piece of Northwestern’s passing attack. But for Demetrius Fields, the Wildcats return almost every receiver of note from last season, and it’s fair to expect general uptick in receiver performance this season given Kain Colter’s improved throwing in spring practice and the rapport developed after working with the same two quarterbacks over the course of an offseason. That won’t minimize Vitale’s place in the passing game. The 6-2, 220-pound sophomore remains as versatile and as dynamic as ever, and coordinator Mick McCall will continue to involve him in all manner of formations and receiving alignments.
Vitale is also, and this part often gets overlooked, immensely important as a blocker. He helps keep Mark, Siemian and Colter clean, breaks into the second level and regularly fights off bigger defenders. Those qualities cannot be pushed aside; Vitale’s blocking is a crucial, even if less celebrated, component of many of Northwestern’s running and passing plays.
This ranking might be a mistake; perhaps Vitale deserves a lower spot on this list. If he continues on the upward trend he began last season, his importance could grow well beyond the No. 10 spot he currently inhabits. Vitale is one of Northwestern’s most important players, and his 2013 season will evince all the reasons why.