NFL draft: Freakishly athletic Dan Vitale thrived as ‘superback’

NFL draft: Freakishly athletic Dan Vitale thrived as ‘superback’

EVANSTON, Ill. — Please don’t call him a mere fullback. Or just an undersized tight end.

"Superback" is the preferred nomenclature.

Any chance to use the Northwestern-coined role the better, and when you combine a do-it-all, made-up position with insane athleticism you have one very intriguing NFL draft prospect in the Wildcats' Dan Vitale.

Yes, fullbacks might be a dying breed in the NFL, but tight ends are not. What about combining the two positions? Some know that role as an H-back, and that’s fine. But Vitale took the “superback” role created at Northwestern (even though he was not the progenitor of it), a hybrid of those positions, and has made quite an impression on NFL scouts, many of whom descended on campus Tuesday to witness his skill set.

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But really, it was his eye-opening athleticism that Vitale displayed at the NFL scouting combine that firmed his place on most draft boards. It was a fairly stunning display a few weeks ago in Indianapolis, frankly for a 6-1, 240-pound ‘tweener. Consider:

• Vitale ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds) than 16 defensive backs at the combine.

• He pumped out more 225-pound bench-press (30) reps than all but four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen there.

• Vitale’s vertical jump would have placed top five at any individual position group.

• His 20-yard shuttle was the fastest among the running backs by almost a tenth of a second, and his 60-yard shuttle was faster than that of Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller, one of the fastest men in college football.

• Or, more apples to apples: Vitale beat Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner, on five of the seven athletic-testing events each of them did there.

In short, Vitale crushed it. And naturally, he stood on those numbers from Indy at his pro day, opting only to do positional work during NU's pro day.

“I was happy but not satisfied because I know I have done better in every single one of those testing numbers,” Vitale said. “I wasn’t necessarily the happiest I have ever been, but pretty much everyone told me I didn’t need to do all those again and they were pretty happy with what I did.

“Now I can get back to football, which is most important.”         

And now teams might be reimagining this fullback thing. That’s the position at which he worked at the Senior Bowl, and Vitale made an impression with his blocking, thought to be the least-defined part of his game.

“A lot of teams that were just I-formation teams wanted to know, ‘Will he go put his face on guys?’” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He answered that I think with a big old exclamation point at the Senior Bowl.”

Vitale won over evaluators with his team interviews, which Fitzgerald knew he would. You combine that with some terrific athleticism, positional versatility and a do-anything attitude, and presto — that’s a player NFL teams can use. Somewhere. Anywhere, really.

He can run, he’s physical, he’s got a great demeanor, high football IQ, we’ve moved him around, he’s played in the kicking game,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re in an organization, you’re trying to minimize risk, right? And he’s about as low of a risk of a prospect that you’re going to find.”

But Fitzgerald also knew that the pass-forward NFL was interested in Vitale as much for his receiving ability as anything. Although he didn’t put up monster numbers in four years (135 catches, 1,427 yards, 11 TDs in 48 games), and his statistics remained fairly constant each of his four seasons, it was clear on Tuesday that Vitale is a smooth route runner with butter-soft hands and the athleticism to beat man coverage, dropping only one catchable pass on the afternoon.

“He runs routes like a wide receiver,” said Northwestern backup QB Zach Oliver, who threw Vitale passes at the pro day. “And he puts up 30 reps of 225? Freak. Total freak.”

[NFL free agency starts Wednesday. Here are Shutdown Corner's free-agent rankings for offensive players and for defensive players and specialists. Here are the top needs for all 32 NFL teams.]

Does Vitale agree with the “freak” label? He took a moment to mull the question over, and laugh a second, before answering.

“I am very blessed with athletic ability, thanks to my parents,” he said. “I like to believe I’ve always been a good athlete out there. That’s always been a strength for me.”

Added Oliver: “He’s rare. He reminds me of Dallas Clark a little bit, just how he can split out and run routes well but also has the wherewithal to block if he’s asked to.”

Dan Vitale speaks with media after Northwestern's pro day (Eric Edholm).
Dan Vitale speaks with media after Northwestern's pro day (Eric Edholm).

Thirty-one of the 32 NFL teams showed up (only the New Orleans Saints skipped) for Vitale’s pro day, despite only a handful of other draftable prospects working out at Northwestern’s facility. Perhaps the best-known evaluator in the house was New England Patriots director of personnel Nick Caserio, the team’s de facto general manager, who met with Vitale privately after the workout. If there ever was a team that would value Vitale’s versatility, it would be the Patriots.

And that includes his work on special teams. Throughout his four seasons, Vitale has been a fixture on the team’s “core four” units, playing just about every spot there was to play. As his offensive role increased this season, playing 60 or more snaps per game in 2015 for the 10-win Wildcats, Fitzgerald dialed back Vitale’s special-teams work. But not by his choice.

“My first two years, I was on everything,” he told Shutdown Corner. “Coach Fitz, I had to beg him to put me on kick return last season, which he did thankfully.”

Vitale was the off-returner on that unit after earlier in his career making his mark as a kamikaze wedge buster as the L4 or L5 on the kickoff coverage. The past two seasons, he also served as a backup to pretty much every special-teams spot the team had — he knew them all — in case anyone went down with injury.

“When I went to the Senior Bowl and the combine, I felt I had a huge advantage in that regard,” he said. “I sat down with some special-teams coordinators and had me go through all the protection schemes on our punt team. I could tell them why did lined up a certain way because I’ve been fully engaged in special teams my whole time here.”

On offense, Vitale estimated he was motioned out to the wing about 40 percent of the time, in the slot about 30 percent, lined up as a true or offset fullback about 20 percent and as an on-the-line tight end maybe 10 percent of the time. It’s the kind of versatility as a blocker and receiver, to go with his eye-popping athleticism and special-teams zeal, that he hopes NFL teams will value highly come draft time.

“I don’t know for sure, but I think NFL teams are trying to find guys who not only have the athletic ability to play in that spot, but also the ones who are willing to put their face on someone,” Vitale said. “I hope that’s the role I can get to play because I would love to. I'm willing to do it all.”

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!