"Who will replace Dan Vitale?"
Pat Fitzgerald had been hearing the question a lot. He heard it after Vitale played his final game as a Wildcat. He heard it after the former superback wowed scouts at the NFL Combine. He knew he'd hear it more as the NFL Draft approached.
It's a question Fitzgerald had heard before though. So had superbacks coach Bob Heffner. It's just that the name at the end of it was different.
"I remember somebody asking me four years ago, ‘How are you going to replace Drake Dunsmore?'" Heffner recalls. "He was the tight end of the year in the Big Ten, he got drafted, and all that."
However, as Fitzgerald says, "All of a sudden, this kid named Vitale came on the scene."
And the rest, as is often said, is history.
Vitale embodied the term superback about as well as one can. The Wildcats used him in a variety of ways. They lined him up as a traditional fullback. They put him in motion and used him as a pass-catching and blocking H-back. They stuck him in the slot. They even split him out wide, outside the numbers.
Vitale's highlight reel, therefore, is as diverse as they come. It includes everything from this...
... To, out of a very similar formation, this:
Replacing Vitale, therefore, is no straightforward task. On one hand, offensive coordinator Mick McCall and his staff will tweak their offense to fit personnel. As Heffner said, "What I've tried to impress on both Garrett [Dickerson] and Jayme [Taylor] is, ‘don't try to replace Dan. What you need to do is improve and play to your skill set.'"
But on the other, Vitale was so integral to many of Northwestern's plays and formations. There's only so much tweaking that can be done. Many of Vitale's duties will need to be performed by someone, and it's not only a matter of who that someone will be, it's how well he will perform those duties.
Rather than answering the question of who will replace Vitale, it's more useful to consider replacing the many different Vitales: the fullback, the H-back, the tight end, the wide receiver, and everything in between. It's not about one player stepping in for another. It's about multiple players stepping into multiple roles.
The players that must step in are Dickerson and Taylor, both juniors. Dickerson saw significant time as a true sophomore in 2015. Taylor missed the entire season after injuring his ankle in the final preseason scrimmage at Kenosha.
While Dickerson's numbers didn't stand out, his role was both sizable and clearly defined. Dickerson was Northwestern's hand-in-the-ground, in-line tight end. Whenever the Wildcats went to a formation that called for that, Dickerson was in the game over, or sometimes alongside, Vitale.
"Garrett's a great in-line blocker," Taylor says. And Taylor is right. Especially late in the season, Dickerson quietly excelled in the role:
This is actually something Vitale never was, and something Dickerson will continue to be. Vitale didn't have the size to line up side-by-side with an offensive tackle and push around defensive ends. Dickerson does.
But what Vitale did do was... well, almost everything else. His mobility as a blocker made up for what he lacked in size. Northwestern would put him in motion off the line of scrimmage, off the hip of either Dickerson or a tackle. Vitale went in motion more than any other Wildcat player, and from these positions, he had the agility to find his block or run his route in any direction. He could even dart back across the formation to keep a running back clean:
"Dan was a running back in high school," Dickerson notes. "So he's used to being able to move around back there, whereas I'm not, I never played running back, so that's a little bit of an adjustment for me."
With Taylor still not up to full speed during spring ball, Heffner said he has yet to decide who will replace Vitale, the H-back.
In some cases though, it might have to be Taylor. Many of Northwestern's most successful run plays, like the very first clip above, came with both Vitale and Dickerson in the game, to the same side of the formation:
If these power sets are to remain a staple of Northwestern's rushing attack, Taylor — or James Prather, or linebacker Tommy Vitale, who played a bit of superback as a true freshman before an injury ended his season — will have to step into the H-back role. In theory, he can, but he's nowhere near as proven a blocker as Vitale.
Then there's the matter of replacing Vitale the receiver. One of Vitale's assets was that not only could he do it all, he could do it all from the same spots on the field. He didn't need to become a slot receiver to make plays in the passing game:
Dickerson's involvement in the passing game has been minimal, and more or less one-dimensional. If he's left open over the middle of the field on a seam route, he can make plays:
But he's still very unpolished as a pass-catcher. He doesn't have Vitale's sure hands...
... Nor his full grasp of the route tree. Dickerson wasn't asked to run 10-yard outs on third-and-8. He wasn't asked to catch bubble screens and take them for 7 yards. That's not to say he's incapable of doing so, but he hasn't yet shown he can.
That's more up Taylor's alley though. Taylor admits that he's not really an in-line type. "I like to flex out a little more and run routes," he says.
The question here will be Taylor's health. Prior to the injury last summer, Taylor was having a strong camp and was primed for significant playing time. Even with Vitale ahead of him, he likely would have been involved heavily as a receiver. With Vitale gone, he'll need to be even more involved. He'll need to show the mobility that will make him a threat on all different kinds of routes, especially those that Dickerson doesn't seem suited for.
If Taylor can't be Vitale the receiver, that's an area in which McCall can tailor the offense to its players. A number of slot receivers could step in, run similar routes (even if not identical routes) and make plays.
This part of Vitale's skill set is part of Taylor's as well, though. So if Northwestern is to adequately answer the overarching question, it will need Taylor to replace a good portion of Vitale's production as a receiver. It will need Dickerson to continue to excel as a blocker. It will also need both to expand their games to, in a small way, emulate Vitale's versatility.
There will inevitably be holes left by Vitale. "Dan learned from watching Drake on film, but Dan wasn't the same as Drake," Heffner says. "And I don't think Garrett will be the same as Dan, I don't think Jayme will be the same as Garrett." It's a matter of how big those holes will be.