Football: Last of the Superbacks

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Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Lightly recruited out of high school, junior superback Dan Vitale has thrived as a jack of all trades. Back-ups Jayme Taylor and Garrett Dickerson have become more specialized.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Sometimes it seems like Northwestern forgets about its superbacks.

That wasn’t the case Saturday, when junior Dan Vitale caught seven passes for 113 yards to help lead the Wildcats past Penn State. Emblematic of his position, he also had blocking assignments all over the field and even had a carry on a jet sweep play.

“It changes from week to week what our gameplan is,” Vitale said after the game. “We opened up our passing game this week. … We’re going to do what works.”

Such outbursts are rare for the talented and multifaceted Vitale, but they offer a reminder of the effect a versatile hybrid player can have, especially as the superback seems to be turning into an increasingly rare breed.

The simple reality is that athletes who have the ability and willingness to do all the things that Vitale does are hard to find. The players behind him on the depth chart are talented, but they seem to be settling into increasingly specialized roles.

Senior Tim Hanrahan is listed at superback, but his job this season has been entirely confined to lead blocking duties on kickoff returns and out of the backfield.

True freshman Garrett Dickerson has just one reception for 21 yards this season, but he has received significant playing time as an in-line blocker for running plays. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Dickerson’s size and blocking ability slot him much more into the traditional tight end role that he has played so far.

The heir-apparent to Vitale may be redshirt freshman Jayme Taylor. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’s the closest match to Vitale in terms of size, and despite his limited production this year – just four catches for 14 yards – he put the super in superback earlier this season when he threw a touchdown to senior quarterback Trevor Siemian on a trick play.

“I’m not sure,” Taylor said on the possibility of future drop-backs. “It would be cool, but that’s up to the coaches and their game plan.”

His potential career as a quarterback aside, Taylor paints himself as more of a pass catcher, a role commonly referred to as an H-back in other offenses.

“(Dickerson) blocks a little more on line than me,” he said. “I flex out a little bit more and do more passing stuff, but at our position, you have to know how to do the blocking and the route running.”

Taylor and Dickerson have to learn all the ins and outs of the position, but increasingly it seems like they won’t have to do all of them. That heightened specialization may be a product of NU’s success on the recruiting trail.

Drake Dunsmore, who played for the Cats from 2007 to 2011, was the genesis of the superback position. Though he was a great Swiss army knife for NU over his playing career, he was only lightly recruited out of high school.

Vitale was in the same mold, originally listed as a wide receiver and graded out as just a two-star recruit.

That wasn’t the case with Dickerson and Taylor. Both received multiple scholarship offers, and Dickerson was a highly touted, four-star rated member of last year’s class.

As NU improves as a program and pulls in better talent, that talent is free to develop into more specific roles. Dickerson and Taylor may come to replace Vitale as two sides of the same coin, each focusing on a specific aspect of the game and doing it better than Vitale could ever hope to.

But for now, the jack of all trades still rules.

“Dan is a hell of an athlete,” Taylor said. “Getting the ball in his hands is something we plan for, and it’s added to our game.”

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