At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Dan Vitale looks like a lean linebacker jumping off the line of scrimmage.
He’s a good three inches taller and a whole lot stronger than Ibraheim Campbell, who he heads toward during a scrimmage set Wednesday. But when you least expect it, Vitale breaks into a post and flashes separation speed that’s usually reserved for the receiving corps.
Good luck covering that.
Vitale’s proclivity for creating mismatches is on display throughout practice. In today’s game, where hybrid tight ends function almost exclusively as oversized super-wideouts, Northwestern’s found itself a good one.
“I have a better grasp of the offense as a whole,” Vitale tells PurpleWildcats.com. “I’ve definitely gained trust with the quarterbacks. I’ve shown them that I can play.”
One of four true freshman to earn playing time last year, Vitale put up just 66 receiving yards through his first two months of action but began piecing things together quickly by the end of the season. It culminated in a seven-catch, 82-yard breakout in the Gator Bowl, Through this season’s first two games, Vitale already has a touchdown grab and more than 140 yards.
“He’s a guy that controls the middle of the field, another serious weapon getting better and better each game,” Trevor Siemian said. “He keeps the defense honest.”
Those mismatches Vitale creates are beginning to influence opponents’ game planning. After he tallied receptions of 53 and 23 yards against Cal, Syracuse focused their safeties on containing the sophomore superback.
The results showed: without help over the top, Tony Jones torched the Orange for almost 200 yards and a touchdown. Vitale still added four grabs and a score of his own.
Northwestern’s already shown it can thrive in the vertical passing game and touts a dangerous two-man running game. With Vitale commanding a safety or an extra linebacker, the holes open for more Tony Jones-esque breakouts.
Vitale sees it as a two-way street.
“[Tony] is such a strong deep threat, it’s good to have him for us guys running shorter routes over the middle,” he said.
It’s not often that teams with good tight ends struggle on offense. While Vitale’s stat line doesn’t pop like that of Jones, Siemian or Kain Colter, his unpredictability absorbs attention in the busiest part of the field: right down the middle.
While Vitale says that he needs to improve his blocking technique, and may be asked to remain on the line more against Big Ten teams with better pass rushes, his progression is encouraging. It’s drawn comparisons to Drake Dunsmore, who Vitale outgained when comparing freshman seasons.
“He’s a great person to watch on film. He really utilized his speed to the best of his ability,” Vitale said of Dunsmore. “The way he attacks cover-down linebackers, that’s what’s been getting me open more this year.”
Finding the linebacker out of position and attacking a route with such confidence is one of Northwestern’s most enticing developments on the offensive side of the ball. And as he continues to expose linebackers, Treyvon Green and the running game will benefit just as much as Jones and the deep game.
For now, Vitale’s not a finished product, but he notes that Western Michigan plays a lot of man defense. He’ll be looking to go deeper downfield this week, he says, and will hope to continue building on momentum that’s been crucial ever since the Gator Bowl.
“Obviously he’s matured. He was a young guy last year who got thrown into the fire a little bit,” Siemian said. “It helps that he’s a freak athlete, too.”