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Northwestern Football Most Important Players — No. 10: Dan Vitale

Vitale needs to have a big year as a receiver if NU's offense is to improve.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.

We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.

One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

First up, at No. 10, is superback Dan Vitale, about whom there was plenty of disagreement. Henry Bushnell and Ben Goren discuss:

Henry Bushnell (Vitale Rank: NR): With his flowing locks and sturdy frame, Dan Vitale is one of the more recognizable players on Northwestern's roster. He's been a fixture in the starting lineup ever since 2012, his true freshman season, and plays a position — superback — that is unique to NU's offense. And he's not only multi-talented, he's also a local boy and somewhat of a fan favorite.

There's one problem though: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall and Northwestern haven't been able to get consistent production out what on paper should be a major offensive weapon. Vitale is a good blocker, and will continue to be a good blocker, but as a pass-catcher, he has been under-utilized. His few breakout games — 5 receptions for 101 yards against Cal in 2013, 7 for 113 against Penn State in 2014 — have illustrated his potential, but that just makes the games where he's invisible all the more maddening. His overall stats — 40 catches for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2014, his best year yet — leave a lot to be desired.

So Ben, what makes him so important to Northwestern in 2015?

Ben Goren (Vitale Rank: 2): Who else are you going to throw the ball to this year? Christian Jones is coming off of a pretty serious knee reconstruction. Cam Dickerson and Miles Shuler come back, but most of what Wildcat fans will remember from them in 2014 was their drops, not their catches.

Dan Vitale is a proven elite target. If Vitale can get the looks, there's no reason why he can't be a First Team All-Big Ten kind of player. He's got the size, he's got the hands, and he's got the hair. You can line him up on the line. You can put him in the slot. He's even been put in the backfield for some nifty shovel passes. He's got everything you need to be a great college tight end.

On paper, Northwestern is set up to be a team that highlights Vitale. A freshman quarterback who's going to be asked to check the ball down? Check the box (probably). A team with speedsters on the outside but without a real physical wideout? Check the box. An offense that needs to own the middle of the field to be able to establish some speed backs on the outside? Check the box. Talent dictates that this team should get Vitale involved early and often. Whether or not the coaching staff feels that way is another story.

Henry Bushnell: That's the thing though. I'm not sure the coaching staff agrees with you. This might just be selective memory, but I seem to remember Vitale lining up even more as an in-line tight end (as opposed to in the slot) in 2014, and I don't see why that will change in 2015. Maybe NU tries to spread teams out more with Thorson or Alviti under center (if one of those two wins the job), but the trend is in the opposite direction.

The one thing I didn't consider is your point about inexperienced quarterbacks and their propensity to check the ball down. That could make Vitale a bigger part of the offense, even if more by necessity than gameplan. It would certainly make him more important.

One thing to consider is the depth at the position though. Garrett Dickerson could develop into a big time player as soon as this year, and Jayme Taylor is very capable in his own right. That makes Vitale less — [pause for effect] — vital, and, in my mind, makes him less important.

And to be honest, I don't see how you could rank any superback in the top five of this list. Maybe I'm underestimating the position's importance, but as far as I see it, the importance of a superback pales in comparison to the importance of most other positions on the field. And given that I don't think it's plausible to expect significantly better receiving numbers from Vitale, I frankly don't think he's going to be that important. Maybe he should be important. But that's different than saying he will be important.

Ben Goren: That's fair, for sure. But here's my hope. Last year, Northwestern was willing to put a bunch of two tight-end sets on the field, mostly to try and get Garrett Dickerson on the field (I think). Hopefully that spirit of tinkering carries through for next year. Maybe Dan Vitale becomes a defacto wide receiver next year. Maybe some sets with Vitale in the slot and Dickerson on the line get worked in. To me, there's only one guy on NU's offense who's already ready for the next level, and that's Vitale. Jackson might be there in a year or two, but Vitale is there now, even if he is projected as an H-Back.

It all comes back to whether or not the coaching staff gives Vitale enough looks to be great. When Vitale is allowed to run up seams and across the middle he bosses games. But Mick McCall and company seem to be averse to getting tight ends, I mean superbacks, in the game. Remember Drake Dunsmore? The guy who did this? Yeah, he never got more than 47 receptions in a season at NU. That tendency needs to change in 2015 for NU's offense to improve and Dan Vitale needs to be a focal point.

Staff Rankings

Ben Goren: 2 | Ian McCafferty: 2 | Josh Rosenblat: 10 | Kevin Dukovic: 10 |
Josh Burton: 11 | Jason Dorow: 12 | Henry Bushnell: NR | Zach Pereles: NR |
Michael Odom: NR

Now it's your turn to tell us. Would you have Vitale in your top 10? If so, how high?