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Northwestern superback Dan Vitale turning into threat

Freshman superback Dan Vitale has become more receiving threfor Northwestern as seashas gone on. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Freshman superback Dan Vitale has become more of a receiving threat for Northwestern as the season has gone on. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 18, 2013 6:14AM



Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald was a candidate for Big Ten coach of the year. But when a team blows fourth-quarter leads in all three of its losses, introspection is the norm.

As successful as the Wildcats’ season has been, expect Fitzgerald to devote time this offseason to deciphering why his team couldn’t put Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan away.

What he won’t have to second-guess is his decision to start Dan Vitale at superback, especially after the way the true freshman from Wheaton came on late in the season.

It was a bold decision at the time, too, because Vitale was replacing reigning Big Ten tight end of the year Drake Dunsmore at a position critical to the success of NU’s spread attack.

‘‘A few other schools were looking at me at linebacker or at tight end, but I knew I was more of a hybrid-type player,’’ Vitale said. ‘‘They put me in the right spot. I think I’ve found a good niche for myself.’’

Vitale excelled at blocking early in the season and emerged as a receiver later on, including a breakout late-season game against Michigan State in which he caught nine passes for 110 yards.

His emergence adds another dimension to the Wildcats’ offense that Mississippi State will have to prepare for in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day and continues what has become an NU tradition in recent years.

It seems a graduating offensive player leaves a gaping hole in the lineup every season, only to have a reserve fill in more capably than anybody could have expected.

‘‘As a true freshman, I didn’t take as many snaps as he did,’’ said Dunsmore, a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad. ‘‘He has been playing quite a few downs. You have to know so many variations of the offense, the passing game, the running game, what the offensive line is doing with protections. It’s an important position, and it says a lot about him that he can be implemented into that type of offense that quickly.’’

Fitzgerald jokes about how Vitale accepted a scholarship before he could finish offering it. Then the issue became what to do with a player who rushed for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns for Wheaton-Warrenville South in 2011. Was he a running back? Vitale played tight end/inside receiver during his junior season in high school before moving to running back as a senior. Was he a receiver?

Wildcats linebackers coach Randy Bates wanted Vitale to play defense, but Fitzgerald overruled him. Vitale had been so dynamic with the ball in his hands in high school that having him play offense seemed the safer bet. Plus, there was a glaring need at superback with Dunsmore gone.

‘‘He established himself in the run game as a blocking threat, chopping down ends and setting the edge,’’ Dunsmore said. ‘‘Being able to do that and then going out and catching passes gives defensive coordinators problems. They don’t know what personnel to send out there. Do they put someone out to play the run or someone who can cover? It puts them in a bind.’’

Dunsmore and Vitale hadn’t met until Dunsmore returned to witness NU’s loss Oct. 20 to Nebraska.

‘‘I really didn’t get to talk to him too much, but I’ve learned a lot from watching him on tape,’’ Vitale said. ‘‘That’s the biggest thing. Watching him on film is incredible. He was great at attacking leverage. I really took that from him. Being a smaller guy myself [6-2, 220 pounds], I watched how he used technique to block, and that’s really become a strength of mine.’’



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