Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.
As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. Our final offensive skill position is the superbacks.
Returning Starters: None
Other returning contributors: Garrett Dickerson (Jr.), Jayme Taylor (Jr.), LB/SB Tommy Vitale (So.), DE/SB James Prather
Redshirt freshmen: None
Incoming freshmen: Eric Eshoo
When Northwestern takes the field against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, it will do so without Dan Vitale for the first time in 1,708 days. That's a startling thought.
Vitale was an ironman. He was not only an outstanding blocker as a fullback or H-back, he was often Northwestern's top target through the air, and he led the team in receiving as a senior. He was one of arguably only two above average starters (by Big Ten standards) on Northwestern's offense a year ago. Now he's off to the NFL, and Northwestern must find a way to replace him.
Replacing Vitale won't be a one-man job. Northwestern will look to two, perhaps three, players to do so. Garrett Dickerson is one of the most physically imposing players on Northwestern's roster, and will have a chance to turn ability into production in 2016. Jayme Taylor will be back after missing all of 2015 with an ankle injury sustained in the Kenosha scrimmage and showed good catching ability two years ago. Candidates for the third superback role are Dan Vitale's younger brother Tommy, former defensive end James Prather, and true freshman Eric Eshoo.
There isn't really a true position battle here. Dickerson and Taylor are different players, and will fill different roles that both fit under the umbrella of superback. The dilemma for Fitzgerald and superbacks coach Bob Heffner is less a position battle and more a question...
Who will fill Dan Vitale's blocking role?
While everybody was clamoring for him to be more involved in the passing game, Vitale was extremely influential in the run game as well. He consistently took on linebackers as a lead blocker, and more often than not won his individual battles. Someone will have to do that in his stead in 2016.
Last summer I asked Vitale about the respective roles of the superbacks. Here's what he said:
"Garrett [Dickerson] is more of our true tight end — hand down on the line, trips formations, trey formations — but he's also a phenomenal athlete so they'll split him out as well. Jayme's more of a receiver-type superback. Never really a hand-down type of guy but he runs phenomenal routes, is a great pass-catcher. And then myself, I have to do a little bit of both, but also being able to line up in the wing in the backfield, kind of like a fullback too. We all have our niche."
Neither Dickerson nor Taylor has done what Vitale did last year. Taylor certainly isn't a fit to do it. Could Dickerson develop into a lead blocker? Maybe. But at 6-foot-4, the former four-star recruit isn't what you think of when you think fullback either.
If Dickerson isn't the guy, there are a few other options. Tommy Vitale, a linebacker coming out of high school, was used in short yardage situations on offense as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. James Prather, one of the final (and lowest-ranked) recruits in the 2014 class, was moved over to the offensive side of the ball midway through the 2015 season. It remains to be seen if Northwestern continues to develop him there. Another option is to use Connor Mahoney as a lead blocker, which the Wildcats did at times last year. (True freshman Eric Eshoo, at 6-foot-5, is more of a traditional tight end.)
Breakout player to watch
You probably came to this space expecting to read about Garrett Dickerson. The fact that you're not is by no means an indictment on Dickerson, or a lack of belief in him. But remember last year when we were told that Dickerson had made great strides in the offseason? He turned that into a mere 12 catches in 12 games. Dickerson should improve again in 2015, but he'll likely be called upon more as a blocker with Vitale gone, so that improvement might not be reflected in numbers.
Dickerson's blocking responsibilities could pave the way for Jayme Taylor as the Wildcats' primary target over the middle of the field. Taylor was an unheralded recruit, but he's a decent athlete and has good ball skills. Provided he returns to 100 percent from his ankle injury, Taylor should see a lot of time in the slot. And if the passing offense as a whole improves, Taylor could be one of the main beneficiaries.
Projected depth chart
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|Superback||Garrett Dickerson||Jayme Taylor||James Prather/Tommy Vitale|