Football: Senior Dan Vitale riding ‘superback’ label toward the NFL


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Dan Vitale shows off his best Superman pose during last season's win over Purdue. Vitale was second on the Wildcats in catches and receiving yards in 2014.

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

What is a superback?

The question used to bother Dan Vitale, to the point that he would preempt it by telling strangers or acquaintances he was an H-back (hybrid back) or that he played “a combo between tight end and fullback.”

At first the question annoyed him, Vitale said at last week’s Big Ten Media Days.

“But I definitely have grown accustomed to getting it, so I’ve got the answer in my head and I just kind of rattle it off,” he said.

For the uninitiated, “superback” is a Northwestern-invented role that combines aspects of the fullback and tight-end positions into one blocking-catching-running gridiron renaissance man.

Or, as coach Pat Fitzgerald so eloquently puts it, “We like guys who can make plays that are big.”

Enter Vitale, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound bruiser who can outrun linebackers and overpower defensive backs and whose college production has made him a strong candidate for the 2016 NFL Draft.

Since assuming the superback position his freshman year, Vitale has been one of the Wildcats’ best and most versatile offensive players, catching 102 passes for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns in three seasons while lining up in the slot, in the backfield or on the line.

A superback’s responsibilities vary week to week, depending on the opponent or on individual matchups, Vitale said. Vitale could be one of the Cats’ top receivers one week and spend most the next game blocking in the backfield. He operates under a different set of rules than anyone else on the field, playing roles no one else can.

“We just know that he’s able to do things that we aren’t, and that we’re able to do things that superbacks aren’t,” said senior receiver Christian Jones.

Vitale’s unique skill set and impressive college stats have set him up for a potential professional career. CBS Sports ranks the senior second on its list of the top fullback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft, as does

Vitale’s flexibility will make him appealing to professional teams, Fitzgerald said.

“We’ve used Danny in every which way you can,” the coach said. “There will be no issue with the NFL evaluating Dan’s ability. He has done everything you can possibly ask.”

Fitzgerald said he’s already spoken to “a number of scouts” about Vitale’s pro potential.

“They already can check the box in what he can do as a receiver, and they have areas that they like him in point-of-attack blocking.” Fitzgerald said. “There’s certain things we do in practice that maybe Danny doesn’t show in games, but when the scouts come out and watch practice they see that he can do anything the position needs him to do.”

The upcoming season could be a fun one for Vitale for several reasons. The senior is NU’s leading returning pass-catcher, having reeled in 40 catches for 402 yards (placing him second on the team in both categories) in 2014. As a senior, Vitale should be a favorite target of whoever emerges from the Cats’ quarterback battle.

This fall will also be the first time Vitale shares a locker room with his brother Tommy, a freshman linebacker.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world,” Dan Vitale said. “This is something we’ll share forever.”

And finally, there are those professional aspirations. If playing superback helps him earn a pro career, all the questions will have been worth it.

“At my position I’ll be able to get tape in the slot, in the backfield, on the wing, at tight end,” Vitale said. “If I can prove that I’m the best football player on the field, that will be enough.”

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