CFB Week 6 Preview: Superback Dan Vitale

It starts up front, with the blocking. Few offensive plays work without good blocking, either in the run game or pass protection. A former quarterback like Mark Schofield appreciates good blocking and the use of versatile players like Northwestern superback Dan Vitale.

A huge game in the Big Ten kicks off Saturday afternoon when the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats travel to Ann Arbor to take on the 4-1 Michigan Wolverines. Both teams are currently ranked in the top 20, with Northwestern ranked #13 and Michigan checking in at #18. While the Wildcats’ quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson have put up the big numbers thus far, the player to watch closely is senior Dan Vitale.

Vitale plays the “superback” position in the Northwestern offense, a hybrid tight end / fullback slot. While he has yet to carry the football this season, he is a crucial element of the Wildcats’ running game. When they utilize a split zone running scheme, he is usually the player tasked with attacking the backside defensive end.


On this play against Minnesota, the Wildcats line up with their 20 offensive personnel (Editor’s Note: For all of these personnel designations Vitale is counted as a running back. Even if he lines up in a tight end alignment, since the offensive personnel designations refer to the personnel on the field, not where they line up.) on the field, with quarterback Thorson (#18) in the pistol formation. Jackson stands behind his QB, with Vitale (#40) lined up to the left of the QB in the backfield. The Wildcats have slot formation on the left, with a single receiver split to the right. Minnesota has their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, showing Cover 1 in the secondary:CFBReview5NWPlay1Still1

The offense runs a split zone play here, using Vitale to trap block the backside defensive end:CFBReview5NWPlay1Still2

Both center Ian Park (#63) and right tackle Eric Olson (#76) are uncovered before the snap, so they immediately work to the second level to take on the linebackers. Watch as these three crucial blocks come together to spring Jackson on the inside:

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Here is another example of Northwestern using this running scheme. Vitale is lined up on the right edge of the offense and the Wildcats have a 21 personnel package on the field. Northwestern runs the split zone play to the inside, with the superback asked to take out the backside defensive end:CFBPreview6NWPlay1Still1The superback angles down the line of scrimmage, and manages to take down not only defensive end Gaelin Elmore (#87) but also defensive back Eric Murray (#31) who is blitzing off the edge:

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Jackson cuts right behind the big block from Vitale, and bursts through the line for a quick five-yard gain on first down.

Seal The Backside

When the Wildcats use a standard zone blocking scheme, the offensive coaches still rely on Vitale to seal the backside defensive end. On this play against Ball State, the offense has Thorson in the shotgun with 20 offensive personnel on the field. Vitale is part of a trips formation to the right, lined up on the edge in a wing position. The Cardinals have their base 4-3 defense in the game, showing Cover 2 in the secondary:CFBPreview6NWPlay2Still1

The Wildcats run the zone play to the left here, with the offensive line firing out in unison to that side of the field. Jackson takes the handoff and starts to the left, before recognizing the flow of the play in front of him and making a quick “bend” decision:

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The RB cuts this play back, right behind the block of Vitale, who has collapsed down on DE Joshua Posley (#57), making a cut and run from Jackson possible.

Northwestern also lines Vitale up as a TE on these plays. Here is an example from their game against Minnesota. The Wildcats face a 2nd and 7 on their own 38-yard line, and set up with Thorson in the shotgun with 20 offensive personnel – using Vitale as a tight end on the right side of the formation:CFBPreview6NWPlay3Still1

The defense, perhaps in response to the offensive personnel, has a sub package in the game, using their 4-2-5 nickel. But with the ability to move Vitale to the TE alignment and run against this sub package, the offense takes advantage:

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The Wildcats run the football on a zone play, with Jackson heading to the left side. The blocking opens up on the inside for him to make his “bang” read and continue through the B Gap. But for his part, Vitale does a solid job of sealing off the backside defensive end, in case Jackson needs to cut this run to the backside.

That is the importance of Vitale in this scheme. With each zone running play having three reads, Vitale is solely responsible on these plays for securing the backside defensive end and keeping the cutback “bend” read alive. Against a fast, attacking defense like Michigan’s, it is likely that Jackson and other Northwestern running backs will be looking for that cutback lane on Saturday.

The Power Game

Next, a quick example of how the offensive coaches, and running backs, trust Vitale even in the power running game. On this play against Ball State, Northwestern is pinned in their own end and needs to get out of the shadow of their own goalposts. They line up for this 1st and 12 play with 22 offensive personnel in the game, with Vitale in a wing to the left:CFBPreview6NWPlay4Still1

They use a power scheme here, with right guard Shane Mertz (#70) pulling around to the left. Jackson takes the handoff heading for the left-side B Gap, but look who sets the edge with a strong block:

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Again, it is Vitale with a crucial block. The RB makes a great cut in the hole, showing tremendous footwork, and Jackson picks up eight big yards for the offense on this play.

While Vitale has yet to carry the football this season, he is also an offensive weapon in the passing game. One way they like to involve Vitale in the passing game is through the shovel pass. On this play against Minnesota, he is lined up in a wing to the right, and the offense has 11 offensive personnel in the game:CFBPreview6NWPlay5Still1

The Golden Gophers have a 4-2-5 nickel package in the game, and show Cover 4 in the secondary. The Wildcats run a shovel pass here, with Vitale the target heading to the left and Mertz leading the way. With the football secured, Vitale starts to cut back to the right. He puts a vicious stiff-arm on defensive back Jalen Myrick (#5) and then rumbles upfield for a 20-yard again:

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Here is a quick look at this stiff-arm. Mr. Myrick might want to skip this image:CFBPreview6NWPlay5Still2

The Vertical Game

But shovel passes are not the only route the Wildcats use Vitale for, he is also a threat in the vertical passing game. Northwestern was trailing Ball State 3-0 midway through the second quarter, and needed a big play. They line up with 20 offensive personnel, putting Vitale in at the TE spot in a pro formation to the left. Ball State has their base 4-3 defense in the game, and they show Cover 6 in the secondary, but they roll this to Tampa 2:CFBPreview6NWPlay6Still1

The offense shows a bubble screen on the right with the slot receiver, while Vitale and the other two WRs all release vertically:CFBPreview6NWPlay6Still2

Thorson takes the snap and fakes the zone run to the RB, before looking to throw. The play-action causes the safety over Vitale to bite, and the superback runs right by him:

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66 yards later, the Wildcats have the lead.

One last example of Vitale as a vertical threat, again from the Ball State game. Again the Wildcats are trailing, now down by three with 12:21 remaining in the third quarter. They face a 1st and 10 on the Cardinals’ 21-yard line, and have 21 offensive personnel on the field. Thorson is in the shotgun with Jackson standing to his left, while Vitale lines up in a wing on the right just outside the TE:CFBPreview6NWPlay7Still1

The Cardinals have their base 4-3 defense in the game, showing Cover 2 in the secondary. Northwestern fakes an outside zone run to Jackson heading left, with Vitale simply releasing on a little wheel route:

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Once more, the play-action fake sucks in the play-side safety, and Vitale is wide open. Thorson drops in a little touch pass, and 21-yards later the Wildcats have the lead once more.

Vitale is a fun player to watch, in the Bill Belichick “do your job” mold. He serves a number of roles for Northwestern, and handles them all very well. I will be sure to keep an eye on him this Saturday, and you should be to. The Wolverines will be sure to identify his positioning on the field before each play, because as the film shows, if you can find #40, you can be sure he will lead you to the football.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy BigTen2Go.

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