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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 9: Dan Vitale

Over the next couple of weeks, InsideNU will reveal its rankings of the most important players on Northwestern’s football team. Past production, position and potential, among other criteria, were taken into account. We only ask one thing from you: If there’s one player you believe is pegged too high or low, reserve your venom until after reading the explanation. Here’s No. 9: superback Dan Vitale

Nobody expected Northwestern's 2013 season to end with five wins, but perhaps even more surprising was how badly the Wildcats struggled on offense. If NU is to get back on track and not only make a bowl game, but also compete for a West Division title, the passing game is the first thing that needs to be fixed.

Enter Dan Vitale.

We'll have one more pass-catcher on this list, but Vitale is one of the most important receivers (err, superback) on the roster. He exploded at the end of the 2012 season, totaling 110 yards against Michigan State and 82 yards in the Gator Bowl, and that carried over into 2013. Vitale started the season with a 100-yard game against Cal, and he added 42 more against Syracuse. However, plagued by mystery injuries that still haven't been discussed, Vitale was inconsistent. He had some solid games here and there, but he wasn't the consistent receiving threat that he was supposed to be.

When he's fully healthy — and when the passing game is healthy — Vitale is one of the most unique players on the offense. He has a knack for getting open over the middle, and his skills as both a blocker and a receiver keep the defense on their toes. This year might be his time to shine.

With Trevor Siemian taking the reins of the offense, NU will undoubtedly pass the ball more, but it will need help from its receivers if the passing game is going to work. It's no given that the new strategy will change the offense's fortunes, given the offensive line's struggles in pass protection last year and the Wildcats' limited attention to the passing game ever since Kain Colter took over as the starter.

Vitale will play a vital role in keeping the passing game consistent. If he's unhealthy and NU doesn't have his blocking ability, or his receiving ability in the middle of the field, the passing game could struggle. There isn't another player like him on the roster, and that's why his health and his abilities will be so important to the Wildcats come August.

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No. 10, Venric Mark