En route to a 5-7 finish, a lot of things went wrong for Northwestern last year. The defense struggled against the run. The offensive line couldn’t protect the quarterback. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were inconsistent. The injury bug was relentless. And, let’s face it, the Wildcats were unlucky.
Buried in all this misfortune was a rather troubling trend: out of nowhere, Dan Vitale’s rapid ascendance to impact player status hit a previously invisible roadblock.
After being thrown into the fire right away as a true freshman, it didn’t take long for Vitale to contribute. He did much of his work in 2012 as a blocker, but then exploded for 9 receptions and 110 yards against Michigan State, and then played a key part in ending NU’s bowl drought with 7 for 82 in the win over Mississippi State.
Naturally, fans had high hopes for Vitale going into 2013, even though he was just a sophomore. He seemed to be well on his way when he put up another 100-plus yards against Cal, and had 4 for 42 and a touchdown against Syracuse. But then something went wrong. Something went awry, or strayed from the planned course.
Over the final 10 games of the season, Vitale’s production depreciated to the tune of 25 catches for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s an average of only 2.5 catches and just under 24 yards per game. That simply was not, and is not good enough.
So we’re faced with the question: what is Dan Vitale? Is he the promising, well-rounded superback that we all thought he would be? Or is he just an average player? The four games on either side of the 2013 offseason point you towards the former. But the overall stats tell a different story. In two full seasons, Vitale has amassed meager totals of 62 receptions for 670 yards and 5 touchdowns, which average out to per-season totals of 31 receptions, 335 yards and 2.5 touchdowns. Those aren’t the numbers of an impact player.
But let’s delve into the reasons for Vitale’s underwhelming 2013. First, there are the struggles of the offensive line, from which the trickle-down effect is twofold. First of all, it generally rendered the passing game less effective, which in turn limited Vitale. But the situation also necessitated that Vitale be used as a blocker more often than coach Pat Fitzgerald or offensive coordinator Mick McCall might’ve wished.
Second, there was Northwestern’s offensive approach. Fitzgerald and McCall were as dedicated to the running game as ever, sometimes even when the situation seemingly dictated otherwise. But NU’s ground attack wasn’t nearly as effective as it was the previous year. This, in turn, diminished the potency of play action passes, on which Vitale usually shines.
Third, the then-sophomore was periodically nagged by injury, which, though unconfirmed, probably hindered his ability to separate from opposing linebackers and safeties.
When projecting Vitale’s 2014 season, the important thing to note is that all three of those issues are not just fixable, they all are likely to be dealt with. The offensive line, which returns all five starters, should be better; the offense should be more pass-happy; and while injuries are impossible to predict, as far as we know, Vitale is healthy heading into the fall.
With better spacing, and with a better receiving corps, Vitale should have more room to maneuver in the middle of the field. If Northwestern’s passing attack can thrive – or at least improve on last season – Vitale should find himself isolated against linebackers more often than not. And he’s also shown on occasion that he’s savvy enough to find windows in zones.
Furthermore, it's clear that the coaching staff recognizes Vitale as an important piece for this offense. Fitzgerald and McCall want to find ways to get him the ball. That was evident last season when he was given the odd handoff; and whether or not we see more of that specifically in 2014, it'd be puzzling to not see Vitale as a big part of the offensive attack.
It is, however, important to temper expectations. Vitale isn’t a dominant athlete by any means. At 6-foot-2, he’s not a prototypical tight end – well, he’s technically not a tight end at all – and isn’t going to dominate as a receiver like the best modern day tight ends are now counted on to do.
But it’s reasonable to think of Vitale as a candidate for somewhat of a delayed breakout in 2014. He’ll certainly be a dependable blocker at the superback position, and it seems that everything is set up for him to be the receiving threat that those performances against Michigan State, Mississippi State, Cal, and Syracuse told us he could be. What many thought was on the horizon last year could still be there. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it’s just been lying in wait for longer than most prognosticators thought it would.